CHIANGRAI TIMES – The US National Bureau of Asian Research has commissioned Professor Catharin Dalpino, a former diplomat who holds the Warburg Chair of International Relations at Simmon College, to explore options on how to modernize and strengthen cooperation between the USA and Thailand.
Thai and United States policy makers are moving to fine tune and renew their collective strategies to reinvigorate the US-Thai Alliance as Washington’s focus turns more to the Asia Pacific region.
Ms Dalpino outlined her ideas to a Thai audience at a seminar co-hosted by the National Defense Studies Institute and Thammasat University on Wednesday. They included recommendations to intensify high-level exchange visits, establish a bilateral dialogue on the impact of China’s rise, developing U-Tapao airport as a regional hub for humanitarian and disaster relief, expanding membership of the Cobra Gold annual joint military exercise, and liberalizing more bilateral and regional trade.
The proposal was launched during the visit of General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Thailand and just after US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta heralded a shift in the US focus to the Asia-Pacific region last week during security talks in Singapore.
Ms Dalpino said that amid the broader US strategic re-balancing toward the Asia-Pacific region and rapid changes in the Asian security environment, a renewed US-Thai alliance could be a key element of US engagement with the region.
However, the alliance – America’s oldest strategic relationship in Asia – has been slow to adapt to 21st Century challenges. With both sides now committed to its revitalization, there is a historic opportunity to inaugurate a new era of cooperation, the 20-page report “An Old Alliance for the New century: Re-invigorating the US-Thailand Alliance” said.
The US-Thailand alliance’s successful transition out of the Cold War framework of the Vietnam War era to a more flexible arrangement has faced stagnation in recent years due to domestic distractions on both sides, differences in threat perceptions, and the expansion of both countries’ political, economic, and security relations in the region, the report said.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have expanded US-Thailand security cooperation beyond the Asia-Pacific region, while the proliferation of nontraditional security threats after the Cold War – including terrorism – has broadened the base of the alliance, Ms Dalpino told the seminar.
Asia, Asean in particular, regionalism has provided a positive US-Thailand alliance towards a more regional orientation, hence requiring more frequent dialogue between both sides to further the course.
Thailand alliance relationship was different from other US partners namely Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines, as it was not evolved under an agreement that required updating and formalising, and as Thailand no longer had the Cold War rationale during the time the alliance was forged, the US-Thai alliance has become global and traversing in areas of non-traditional security concerns, said Ms Dalpino.
She suggested that Cobra Gold was a good diplomatic window to bring other regional observers into the process, which has not followed conventional objectives but humanitarian assistance exercises.
In addition, how best to link the Cobra Gold to other regional mechanisms such as the Asean Regional Forum and the Asean Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (Asean + dialogue partners) was an open question that should be explored.
In suggesting both sides intensify visits by senior leaders, she said it was unthinkable that US President Barack Obama, who was invited to the summit in Phnom Penh in November, did not also visit Thailand.
The director general of Thailand’s Department of American and Pacific Affairs , Chirachai Pankrasin, said Bangkok welcomed the US rebalancing as it believed it could contribute to the region’s stability.
Next year the two countries will celebrate 180 years of bilateral relations, Mr Chirachai noted, and welcomed stronger trade and investment in the country as well as in the Asean region.
“Thailand’s strategic location, with Dawei depp Seaport development (in Myanmar) to be linked with the Eastern Seaboard (in Thailand), offers a good connectivity for the Asean region,” Mr Chirachai said.
Kavi Chongkittavorn, a senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies, said Thailand should explicitly draw the borderline of its alliance with the US in a similar way Australia has.
Use the navy’s U-Tapao airport must be transparently monitored. “If it is clearly used for humanitarian, it should be okay,” said Mr Kavi.
Maj Gen Surasit Thanadtang, director of the Strategic Studies Centre, said Thailand would like to see the US expand its multilateral role, especially at the Asean Defence Ministers Meeting and humanitarian and disaster relief forums.
Daniel Unger, of Northern Illinois University, said the US is being viewed less sympathetically by the new emerging groups of elites in Thailand.
Mr Unger suggested that the two sides explore ways that both the US and Thailand could work for “the collective good”, for example in counter terrorism and other non-traditional security issues.
But the Bangkok-based independent academic noted that Thailand might not be an influential partner of the US in post-Afghanistan and post-Iraq geopolitics, compared to India, Vietnam and Singapore.
Lastly, Mr Unger was sceptical how Thailand could re-establish its leadership in Asean, “unless they have a shared vision of what domestic politics would be needed”.
“Foreign policy makers, even in the most rule-bound democratic countries, are still having difficulty in preparing or coming up with decisions. So it is certainly true in Thailand, which does not yet have institutions to manage, to channel or break political conflicts,” said Mr Unger. Two key examples of previous set-backs were Thai-Cambodian relations and the US-Thai Free Trade Agreement effort.
Chulacheep Chinwanno, of Thammasat University’s political science faculty, said an alliance as viewed by the US term narrowly defined but Thailand looked at it as in all dimensions.
Mr Chulacheep suggested that Thailand keep nurturing bilateral defence cooperation with both China and the US, while proceeding with regional mechanisms such as the Asean Defence Ministers Meeting and the Asean Regional Forum.