White House trip seen as win for PM

White House trip seen as win for PM

ANALYSIS: Prayut basks in afterglow as Trump tacitly endorses regime, with trade bolstered

By the time they walked out of the White House early Tuesday (Thailand time) Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha had won over President Donald Trump, who he now calls 'my true friend'. (Photo courtesy Government House)
By the time they walked out of the White House early Tuesday (Thailand time) Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha had won over President Donald Trump, who he now calls 'my true friend'. (Photo courtesy Government House)

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's visit to the White House this week has seen his military regime stay in Washington's good books by arranging more product purchases and private investment from the Thai side.

But both sides apparently emerged as winners because, in exchange, Gen Prayut's administration has gained broader international recognition and the tacit blessing of US President Donald Trump's government.

During the trip, Siam Cement Plc (SCG), Thailand's largest industrial conglomerate, broke new ground by announcing it would purchase 155,000 tonnes of coal from US companies for the first time.

Meanwhile, PTTGC America LLC, a subsidiary of PTT Global Chemical, signed an MoU and said it is mulling investing in a petrochemical complex in the US worth about 200 billion baht.

Some 23 Thai companies that have invested US$5.6 billion in the United States said they now plan to double their total investment.

After meeting President Trump on Monday (Washington DC time), Gen Prayut enjoyed a reception dinner the following night hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce and the US-Asean Business Council.

"Visiting the US this time, I would like to say I am happier than at any time in the past, as I feel that I have found my true friend," he said at the dinner.

The two leaders discussed their respective roles and responsibilities to promote peace and stability in the region, he said, noting the two countries have fought side by side in a number of wars.

"This is an assurance of my intention based on the feeling that Thailand cannot stand alone," Gen Prayut said.

"I've been a soldier for 40 years, but I'm determined to preserve the relations between the US and Thailand."

Gen Prayut repeated his election pledge to Mr Trump, but carefully steered away from the date controversy.

"'Thai democracy' will come," he said. "I insist I will definitely announce the [general] election date next year."

A major dispute now is brewing over this issue. Gen Prayut and the junta claim the premier only committed to announcing an election date next year, not holding a national vote. But the joint US-Thai statement issued after the Prayut-Trump meeting clearly stated there will elections during 2018.

Pundits say the trip has benefited Gen Prayut and his government by awarding it more recognition on the global stage. But academics caution that Thailand still needs to balance its relationship with China and clarify its position on conflicts in the region.

Chulalongkorn University political scientist Surachart Bamrungsuk said Gen Prayut's trip should ease criticism that Thailand is leaning too closely toward China.

At the same time the government has seen acceptance from a powerful Western country while the prime minister has once again played a role on the global stage.

If Mr Trump's objective in inviting the Thai premier to the White House was to draw one of its Asian allies closer amid escalating tensions with North Korea over its nuclear missile programme and with China over territorial disputes in the South China Sea, then it may have served its function.

However, Thailand now enjoys closer ties with China than in the past.

Thammasat University's director of Asean Studies Prapat Thepchatree expressed concern about China's influence over Thailand and the region.

But he said Thailand's stance has been moderate and in line with that of Asean and the United Nations, meaning the kingdom should not be singled out as a potential target by either North Korea or China.

Mr Surachart said Mr Trump did not completely sidestep discussions about democracy as the two leaders also talked about the government's roadmap.

This culminated in a joint statement bearing Gen Prayut's promise to fix the election date next year.

"Recognising Thailand's strategic importance to the United States and the region, President Trump welcomed Thailand's commitment to the roadmap, which upon completion of relevant organic laws as stipulated by the constitution, will lead toward free and fair elections in 2018," the statement read.

"The two leaders also recognised the importance of protecting and promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms," it continued.

While Mr Prapat highlighted Washington's desire to strengthen its friendship with Thailand to, among other points, benefit from its strategic location and role as a gateway to Asean, independent analyst Somjai Phagaphasvivat said Thailand needs to tread carefully when balancing relations with China and the US.

If it fails to satisfy the US on the North Korea issue, it might put more pressure on Thailand when it comes to the Thai-US trade imbalance and human rights issues, Mr Somjai said.

Among the issues recorded in the joint statement are calls for a "stronger alliance for common security", a "closer economic partnership for common prosperity" and "people-to-people relations".

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