US-Thailand friendship turns cold, further weakening America’s influence in Asia
Benjamin Zawacki says the gradual loss of a solid US ally in the region will only be exacerbated by the Thai king’s death and Donald Trump’s election as US president
Recent momentous events in Thailand and the United States are more connected than they seem, and will have an impact on both nations for years to come. In mid-October, Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyedaj, born in the US and the only king most Thais had ever known, passed away after 70 years on the throne. A month later, political neophyte Donald Trump was elected the 45th US president, defeating a candidate who had spent a quarter of a century in the corridors of American power. Bilateral relations between these two treaty allies, already at an historical ebb, are now set for further, faster, and ever more costly decline.
Thailand and the US emerged from the second world war with common cause as the cold war got under way. After taking the throne, King Bhumibol committed Thai troops to assist the war effort in Indochina. When Bangkok finally dismissed the 50,000 US soldiers based in Thailand in the mid-1970s, it was the king who assured that the closing of one chapter was merely path and prelude to another. A decade of rising trade, refugee assistance and large-scale joint military exercises followed.
Enter 1992. In Bangkok, the king reached the zenith of his power and international prestige, when his intervention amid violent unrest resulted in a dictator’s departure and five years of democratic “spring”. In Washington, president Bill Clinton won the White House, alongside first lady and future candidate Hillary, and backed Thailand’s post-cold-war trajectory.
But the unravelling began in 1997 with Clinton’s heavy-handed and ham-fisted response to Thailand’s financial crisis, contravening the king’s model of a “sufficiency economy”. His successor’s “War on Terror”, joined by a Thai prime minister often at odds with the monarchy, further strained relations. President George W. Bush’s unlawful torture programme began on Thai soil, and his response to a 2006 coup d’état was contradictory and self-defeating. During a visit two years later, he shocked his hosts by not meeting the ageing king.
What about Thailand? Barack Obama caps Asian pivot but Bangkok stands out as missing piece of the puzzle
By the time President Barack Obama placed Thailand atop his second-term travel schedule, he had all but ignored the country for four years and would fail to turn the symbolic gesture into substance. Critically, however, militating against Obama’s drift was a policy articulated in late 2011. The vision of then secretary of state Hillary Clinton for a US “pivot” to Asia would depend on long-time friends like Thailand. In addition to political influence, economic growth, military projection and national security, central to the policy was the advancement of US “values”: human rights, humanitarian assistance, rule of law, democracy.
Ironically, voters in the recent US election placed far more weight on Clinton’s handling of official State Department email than on her foreign policy experience and acumen. Thus, following the death of the single most steadfast US ally in Southeast Asia since the second world war, the pivot – and Thailand’s pivotal role in it – has likewise passed. Foreign policy was limited and largely incoherent in Trump’s election campaign, characterised by an isolationism both anachronistic and ill-advised.
Yet, Asian allies matter to the US because China is not one. Its expansion into Southeast Asia has been comprehensive and swift, particularly in Thailand, which separates the all-important Strait of Malacca from the volatile South China Sea. Through the strait passes one-third of global trade and two-thirds of all oil and liquefied natural gas.
No less important, China’s model of authoritarian capitalism has been increasingly embraced across the political spectrum. Advancing Thailand’s 2014 coup were popular and prolonged demonstrations against democracy. The currency of American values has plummeted; how much more might they do so under a president who holds them in similarly low esteem?
As tens of millions of Thais mourn King Bhumibol and an equal number of Americans decry Trump’s election, a valuable relationship pivots sharply in the wrong direction.
Benjamin Zawacki is author of the forthcoming book, Thailand: Shifting Ground Between the US and a Rising China