Last week, The Heritage Foundation hosted a very timely discussion on the future of the U.S.–Thailand Alliance featuring well-known Southeast Asia experts Catharin Dalpino of Simmons College, Kelley Currie from the Project 2049 Institute, and Walter Lohman, director of Heritage’s Asian Studies Center.
Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S.–Thailand Alliance, despite ample cooperation across several critical areas, has drifted, victim to the changing strategic environment in Asia, the political instability in Thailand, and the divided attention of U.S. policymakers. As Lohman highlighted in his opening remarks, “at the strategic level, we could not be in more different places as allies…while at the operational level, things are quite robust.”
In a recent paper entitled “Reinvigorating the U.S.-Thailand Alliance,” Lohman sought to redefine the debate on the strategic outlook for the alliance, arguing that both sides should embrace the alliance for what it is, capitalize on the myriad benefits provided by the alliance, and call off the search for a shared strategic vision.
As for doing more with the relationship amidst continued political uncertainty in Thailand, Dalpino pinpointed a key dynamic: “We are overstating the impact of the political situation.… [The] reflexive response on the part of U.S. policymakers that we cannot take things to the next level until the political situation is resolved…is becoming a bit of a smokescreen and cliché.” The alliance, Dalpino said, enjoys broad support among both major political factions in Thailand. “We would be at this point anyway regardless of the political situation,” she said, “because we do not know what we want, and neither do the Thais.”
Regarding diplomatic engagement with Thailand, there was consensus that the U.S. is not paying enough attention to Thailand at the highest levels. The panel highlighted that President Obama has not yet visited either of our Southeast Asian treaty allies, the Philippines and Thailand, with Dalpino saying that “if he travels to the region next year, he will have to go to Thailand, the Philippines and/or Vietnam…[as] these visits are very important and send very strong signals.” She also noted that there is “some imbalance diplomatically” in the U.S. approach to the region.
Referring to the traditional system of security through bilateral alliances—known as the hub-and-spokes system—Dalpino also argued that “we are the one dismantling the hub and spokes in Southeast Asia with this broader spectrum of security relations” with non-treaty allies.
Lohman agreed and noted that the U.S. should not forget its treaty allies, as an alliance is a testament to how far a relationship can go. As he put it, “signing your name on the dotted line” matters.
Dalpino concluded by expressing that “our goals for having more of a U.S. presence in regional security and Thailand’s goals for becoming more of a regional actor could easily and nicely converge in the 21st century,” calling the alliance a challenge but also an opportunity.
Currie highlighted that “ongoing political instability in Thailand,” despite the recent overwhelming victory of the Pheu Thai party, could destabilize the alliance. To her, the unstable political climate in Thailand following the 2006 coup could exacerbate alliance-threatening scenarios, such as another coup or a resurgence of street violence. In addition, “the political instability has caused Thailand to lose standing as a regional leader, and so that has affected its relations with the U.S.”
Currie expressed that the U.S. should want Thailand more involved in regional affairs and should “continue to re-engage bilaterally at multiple levels,” push for a renewal in free trade agreement discussions, encourage Thai participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and “strengthen the embassy’s presence,” calling it a focal point for U.S. approach to the region..
No discussion touching on Thai politics can be complete without mentioning the institution of the Thai monarchy, which, upon the eventual succession from King Bhumibol to Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, will face tough questions about its role and authority in a democratic system. Currie stated that “political instability is now coming from a traditional source of stability—the Thai monarchy. Right now, the monarchy is one of the underlying weaknesses of the political system and is contributing to the retardation of democratic institutions in Thailand.”
An audience member further raised the prospect of uncertainty after the king’s death, and Lohman expressed a widely held sense of frustration that, due to Thailand’s draconian lèse majesté laws—which severely punish any perceived criticism of the monarchy—Thais are unable to have a serious discussion on the issue. He stated that “it’s ridiculous that you cannot talk about the thing that may be the biggest crisis on the horizon. You can’t have an honest conversation about what the recourse would be.”
The primary takeaway from this event is that the U.S. needs to be more opportunistic in its alliance with Thailand, as the Thais have historically promoted a greater U.S. role in the region. Indeed, all panelists agreed that the alliance can serve a number of vital functions and that, despite the numerous challenges facing it, there still remains a powerful institutional and historical foundation that makes the alliance mutually beneficial.