Opinion: The US Vice President just visited the region, why did she skip Thailand?

This week, US Vice President Kamala Harris visited Southeast Asia on a two-country tour to boost her country’s image amid questions raised after the Afghanistan fiasco.

American allies across the region have raised alarm bells internally over the US’ reliability given what happened in Kabul.

Harris is using her trip to also confront an increasingly bullish China over its expansionism and increasing belligerence within the region. Beijing has used America’s failings in Afghanistan for propaganda wins over the last month – including taunting Taiwan that the US was unlikely to come to its defense should a conflict occur.

In Thailand, there have also been grumbling about the situation in Kabul but to a lesser extent. Instead, Harris’ trip has prompted conversations about her choice of locations and why she chose to visit Vietnam and Singapore instead of Thailand.

As hosts of next year’s APEC summit, many Thai leaders felt slighted that Harris chose to bypass the country. Given that Thailand often brags about how it is the oldest Asian treaty ally of the United States, Harris’ omission of Thailand was embarrassing for the Prayut government. Arguments over the Covid situation also fell flat given the rising number of infections in Vietnam.

Not surprising

But it should be unsurprising for regional observers as to why Vice President Harris would forgo a visit to Bangkok.

While we may want to blame local conditions in Thailand where the political situation in Thailand is uncertain, the unelected leader remains extremely unpopular, and street violence has become a regular occurrence. That is only part of the answer.

The argument that the United States would only recognize Thailand should it suddenly become a democratic nation also falls flat. It is clear given what is happening around the world especially in Afghanistan (also Harris has chosen to visit a very undemocratic country in Vietnam) that the United States cares little for the principles of liberal democracy.

No, the real reason that Harris is not visiting Thailand is because we are no longer relevant.

Singapore is the financial hub of the region, a place where people escaping communist oppression in Hong Kong are flocking to, and a center for the region’s multinational corporations. Vietnam is one of the fastest growing economies in the region and the world and a alternative manufacturing base to China.

Thailand meanwhile has lagged woefully behind in economic development and diversification even before the pandemic. The government’s big development programs including the Eastern Economic Corridor and the high speed infrastructure development has fallen flat and disappeared from conversation. Under the stewardship of Prime Minister and Coup-leader Prayut Chan-ocha for the better part of a decade, the country has nothing to show for it.

Even the government’s previous big plan which was to prepare the country for the ASEAN Economic Community has amounted to nothing with language barriers and a poor education system still hindering Thailand’s progression.

So given our gloomy future outlook (think how dependent our economy is on tourism and almost nothing else), it only makes sense for the US Vice President to give us a miss.

There is nothing to see here for her, no speeches to make. The future of ASEAN is not in Bangkok and that will not change too without a change of direction – or at the very least a change of leadership.

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