Engaging Thailand is the right move for Biden ahead of the ASEAN-U.S Summit

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Thailand and the United States are engaging in a Strategic Dialogue for the first time in two years, a move that has raised eyebrows among commentators and policy watchers. Attended by Thailand’s Permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs Thanee Thongphakdi and Permanent Secretary for Defence Gen. Warakiat Rattananont, lower ranking officials as is common for policy discussions such as these. The Strategic Dialogue, which comes ahead of the ASEAN-U.S. Summit that is scheduled for May 12 and 13, shows signs of a revival in bilateral relations between Bangkok and Washington. 

Some of the agenda items are mostly diplomatic pleasantries and expanding bilateral partnerships that are significant for both the Biden Administration and Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, such as post-COVID-19 economic recovery, as well as initiatives to combat climate change. They present easy wins for both, as Biden last year promised $102 million for Southeast Asian nations to support recovery from COVID-19, address climate change, promote economic growth and develop human capital.”

Engaging with Thailand bilaterally is the right move for the Biden Administration, whose foreign policy toward Thailand has been dramatically inconsistent and lackluster. For example, when Biden held a democracy “summit” last year, Thailand, whose government was poorly legitimized by both a coup d’état in 2014 and a deeply-flawed 2019 election, was not among the invitees. A more diplomatic and less exclusive expression of American foreign policy in Southeast Asia would have been to hold regional summits, with democratic allies in the region, such as Japan, Australia, or South Korea holding the torch for the U.S. State Department. Isolating Thailand was a flawed move and began bilateral relations for Biden on the wrong foot. 

While it should normatively remind Thailand of its obligations under each of the major United Nations human rights treaty bodies, the United States does not need a repeat of Obama-era foreign policy which arguably set in motion Thailand’s later engagement with China. A more responsive bilateral engagement strategy would have been to engage in areas where mutual cooperation is essential, such as defense cooperation. After 2014, U.S.-Thai relations soured, and U.S. participation in regular Cobra Gold exercises dwindled. In these talks, the United States should pursue a more robust engagement with an eye to critical security, counter-terrorism and maritime security matters, which are also key developing issues in the broader Indo-Pacific. 

Not overlooked between these meetings and the ASEAN-U.S. Summit is the recently revealed White House Indo-Pacific Strategy, which aims to advance former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region (FOIP). The American strategy requires ASEAN as a partner alongside its security partners in the Quad (United States, Australia, India and Japan). While China remains the elephant in the room and ASEAN partners must balance their economic and political engagements with Beijing, Biden has to move further in engaging partners like Thailand to advance the FOIP agenda. 

In that pursuit, ASEAN is a fractured grouping and is currently failing to manage the crisis in Myanmar. Biden must also realize that an engaged ASEAN, Thailand included, is important in managing regional integration across the Indo-Pacific. Trade partnerships, as well as common defense and security cooperation are key drivers of integration in Southeast Asia through ASEAN. A cooperative ASEAN is essential to broader integration across the Indian and Pacific oceans. 

ASEAN countries are aware of the tension between the United States and China, and many loathe it. What Biden has failed to learn by failing to engage in Southeast Asia is that many countries want a consistent American presence in the region to counter growing Chinese momentum. In the absence of U.S. leadership, some have sought better relations with Quad partners in Japan, Australia and India. Biden has also failed to understand the tensions that exist among ASEAN countries given China’s encroachment in the South China Sea. Key partners Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan require America’s presence. Marcos, the winner of the Presidency in the Philippines will also require U.S. diplomacy given his interest in broadening ties with China.

Frankly, American engagement with Thailand is barely par for the course. In broader ASEAN, there are thornier characters to contend with, most notably Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, entrenched in power for more than three decades and now the 2022 ASEAN chair. Up until recently, the U.S. was struggling to figure out representation for Myanmar

The bilateral security dialogue and the ASEAN-U.S. Summit offer Biden new opportunities to re-engage with Thailand and broader Southeast Asia. Despite analysts claims that this is an opportunity for Prayut to reestablish domestic legitimacy by opening up to the United States, the onus is clearly on Biden. The Americans must clearly demonstrate leadership in the Indo-Pacific and that starts with improved Thai relations. Inaction cannot just be blamed on a pandemic. Biden the diplomat must finally emerge. 

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