Thailand begins high-level talks in Washington in shift from previous strategy; Prawit unhappy

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The US and Thailand will conduct high level talks on Tuesday and Wednesday (Bangkok Time) this week with the aim to strengthen defense and security partnerships in a foreign affairs about-face that has some analysts questioning the motive.

Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink and Assistant Secretary of Defense Ely Ratner will lead the U.S. delegation while Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Thani Thongphakdi and Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defense General Warakiat Rattananont will lead the Thai delegation.

The first joint U.S.-Thailand Strategic and Defense Dialogue will address, according to the US State Department, post-COVID-19 economic recovery and prosperity, health and law enforcement cooperation and matters of security and defense.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha is scheduled to be in Washington when President Biden hosts ASEAN leaders on May 12 and 13.

“Faced with regional and global challenges, the United States and Thailand will reaffirm our long-standing treaty alliance and partnership…,” the US State Department said in a press release.

About Face

Prayut’s decision to strengthen defense ties to the United States is the culmination of months of diplomatic overtures conducted both in Washington and through the embassy in Bangkok to woo the Prayut administration away from Beijing’s growing orbit.

When Prayut seized power in a coup in 2014, the United States decoupled from Thailand while the junta remained in power forcing the military government to find allies in Moscow and Beijing.

Arms deals, including purchase of armored vehicles and two submarines, went the way of China while trade and energy deals brought Thailand closer to the Putin government. Since the government held an election (albeit a flawed one) in 2019, US diplomats have increasingly made their presence felt and Prayut’s attendance at the summit in Washington will be seen as a mini triumph for the US State Department.

However, according to sources within the cabinet, the about face by the prime minister has not been universally well received in his cabinet. Most notably Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, who has close ties to Beijing and the CCP, has made his displeasure known among defense circles.

Prawit, who was partially responsible for a multi-billion baht submarine deal, continues to push for closer ties with Beijing as a counterweight to Washington’s hegemony in the region.

With political instability growing inside the cabinet and parliamentary dissolution possible before the end of the year, Prayut’s ailing support within Thailand could be one of the reasons he has reached out to the United States which has provided support and aid to strongmen in Thailand before in the face of growing communist expansion (most notably during the Vietnam war).

It remains to be seen whether that support can translate to electoral cache when Prayut’s brand has been so damaged by a lackluster covid response and an ailing economy.

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