US secretary of state Antony Blinken almost made it to Thailand.
Blinken had planned to visit his counterpart, Thai foreign minister Don Pramudwinai, but a journalist following the secretary tested positive for Covid-19.
Blinken’s Thailand visit was supposed to be the last leg of a tour of Southeast Asia. Instead, it ended up being a microcosm of US inattention to the Kingdom, as well as president Joe Biden’s inability to forge greater relationships with strategic partners as the US looks for ways to contain China.
Biden foreign policy in Southeast Asia should include an Indo-Pacific strategy that does not force countries like Thailand into untenable positions in which they must soft balance against the US or accommodate Beijing, as has been the case with Thailand and Cambodia for a number of years.
US engagement under Biden should have been a departure from the Trump era: imaginative and forward thinking with strategic objectives in mind.
Biden’s foreign policy should have pivoted back to Asia in 2021. President Barack Obama’s relationship with Thailand soured after the May 2014 coup d’état, when the Thai military took over the government and initiated martial law. This was prior to four years of Donald Trump, who embraced North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and smiled on US white nationalism that fueled violence against Asian Americans.
Yet Blinken’s very first call with the Thai foreign minister signaled there was a limited range of topics the Americans were interested in discussing. The call was both flat and uninspiring.
The state department’s summary simply “reaffirmed the strength of the United States-Thailand defense alliance,” like every incoming US administration, and said the diplomats “reviewed global efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and discussed the importance of working together to advance our shared prosperity, security, and values across the free and open Indo-Pacific region.”
However, substantive engagement did not occur until late October when Biden participated in the U.S.-ASEAN Summit, aimed at reassuring the ten-member bloc that amid the rivalry between the US and China, the US would not seek to replace or rival ASEAN’s traditional role in the region with the Quad or AUKUS security alliances.
Like Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, Thailand’s geographical position as a critical access point to the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea makes it a critical Indo-Pacific partner.
Thailand, unlike other countries such as Vietnam and Singapore, which were part of vice president Kamala Harris’ visit in August, has been left off of Biden’s strategic map. In light of its lingering political crises that are discordant with the Biden administration’s return to a push for democratisation and human rights, Thailand was conspicuously absent from the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, which was published in March.
Biden’s lack of vision in the assessment of Thailand’s usefulness as a regional ally is concerning. Despite its toxic domestic politics, the country still has a role to play as a member of ASEAN and as a potential diplomatic broker in regional hotspots like Myanmar.
Efforts in Washington, DC, have also been focused on trade within the region, which the US has fallen dramatically behind. Trade between ASEAN and the US has grown to $362 billion between 2009 and 2020, compared to $685 billion between China and ASEAN in the same period. Bilateral relations between Thailand and the US could have progressed on trade.
There was optimism at the beginning of the year, with the Department of International Trade Promotion noting the Biden policies would accelerate Thai imports to the US by as much as 4%.
Regionwide however, Biden has shown no interest in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade pact that would expand US economic influence in Southeast Asia and further entice Thailand into joining. Instead, the US has been inconsistent and indecisive, preferring to announce at the East Asia Summit the beginnings of a regional economic framework with Indo-Pacific partners.
Inconsistency also has defined the U.S.-Thai security relationship. Since the early 1950s, Thailand has been a key US ally, from its staunch anti-Communist stance to military engagement in the annual Cobra Gold joint military drills with Asian nations. The latter provides a built-in platform for regional cooperation, as it has been a mainstay even during the most turbulent of Thai political periods.
Unfortunately, Biden as well as Trump neglected opportunities to leverage the normative values of human rights and democracy to participating Thai soldiers through Cobra Gold and the International Military Education and Training (IMET) programme, which affords opportunities for foreign soldiers to take classes at US military institutions. Most IMET curricula currently do not include material on universal values, instead focusing on introductory training, interoperability and general professional military education.
On the upside, the 7th Thai-US Strategic Dialogue held in May served as a forum for a discussion on a long-standing economic and development partnership, one that has been dimmed for a long period by China’s rapid dominance.
Bangkok and Washington deliberated on prescient issues such as climate change, clean energy and technology, areas of mutual concern. This was an improvement and a departure from topics discussed at the 2017 version, which included North Korean nuclear missile programs and Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, where Thailand had in the past played a mediator role.
Perhaps most prominent of all, overshadowing the minimal progress made this year in US-Thai bilateral relations, was Thailand’s snub from Biden’s virtual Summit for Democracy earlier this month.
While the conference was important for the US to promote and defend democracy as critical to the survival of the post-war international order, Biden did little to define democracy. There was also a lack of critical selection. The Philippines was invited, despite president Rodrigo Duterte crippling democracy and the rule of law through his war on drugs and assault on press freedom.
A better strategy would have been to create regional fora, where democratic allies in Asia such as Japan, South Korea, or more controversially Taiwan, could work to halt democratic backsliding while promoting the virtues of democracy to authoritarian states like Thailand.
Biden cannot expect democracy promotion, while laudable in the case of Taiwan, to work in concert with strategic goals. Isolating or alienating Southeast Asian partners like Thailand cripples Biden’s ability to help resolve regional conflicts.
While there were mutually beneficial moments, such as the US donation of 1.5 million doses of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine to Thailand, for which Prayut personally thanked US ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the first year of Biden’s complicated, yet scattershot, approach to Thailand and broader Southeast Asia was inconsistent at best.
However, emerging concerns such as environmental issues among countries along the Mekong River should be placed at the top of the Biden agenda in Thailand and in ASEAN.
There are commonalities dividing Mekong River countries against China, such as upstream dams that create downstream problems for Thailand and others. Biden in 2022 must be more imaginative in his foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific and in his engagement with Thailand.
If Biden’s agenda is to advance US interests in the region, but also contain a rising China, he must find common ground on next-generation issues such as those facing Mekong countries. That won’t happen with wedges like a poorly planned democracy summit or a business-as-usual approach to strategic military cooperation.
In 2022, Biden has his work cut out for him.
Mark S. Cogan is an associate professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, Japan. He is a former communications specialist with the United Nations in Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.