Three years ago, the United States and Thailand seemed headed for u more strained and distant relationship. U.S. policy-makers viewed Bangkok us increasingly insignificant while Thailand sought to move out of its traditional U.S. orbit and increasingly balance the influence of Washington with China, Europe, and the Muslim world. Yet, since 2001, the United States and Thailand have become extremely close. This article examines the U.S.-Thai relationship from the 1980s to the present day, particularly focusing on the post-9/ 11 era in light of the Bush administration's war on terrorism and growing linkages between Thailand and the United States. Ultimately, the article analyses what has accounted for warmer ties, why some strains still remain, and whether U.S.-Thai relations hove in fact returned to their previous 1980s intimacy.
When George W. Bush and Thaksin Shinawatra took office in 2001, U.S.-Thai relations were cordial though jittery. In the post-Cold War world, U.S. policymakers had relegated Thailand to a lesser level of importance. Meanwhile. Thailand had increasingly sought to transform its traditionally pro-U.S. tilt towards a foreign policy more evenly balanced to include China, Europe, and the Muslim world. Yet, since 2001, the United States and Thailand have embarked on an increasingly intimate partnership unseen since the 1980s. This article examines the changing priorities of U.S.-Thai relations from the 1980s, 1990s, through the events of 9/11, to the present day. It particularly focuses on the post-9/11 era in light of the Bush administration's international war on terrorism, and growing security and economic ties between Thailand and the United States. Ultimately, the paper emphasizes how common interests have led to warmer ties while certain strains remain.
Until Thailand's brief 1975 to 1976 experiment with democracy, U.S.-Thai relations were quite close and might even be described as patron--client. (1) The relationship was built on shared anti-communist security concerns and paralleled the military elites' dominance of Thai society. The U.S. began supplying Thailand with military aid in 1950 and both states signed the 1954 Manila Pact of the former Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO). Despite SEATO's demise in 1977, the Pact remains in force. Meanwhile, the Thanat-Rusk communique of 1962 committed each nation to defend the other if one was attacked.
The 1975 to '76 period saw a policy of "equidistance" whereby Thai policymakers sought alliance not only with the United States but also "with new friends and former enemies". (2) Thailand in the 1980s followed a policy of "omnidirectionality" which recognized the importance of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), China, Vietnam, the USSR, as well as the United States. The success of "omnidirectionality" showcased the evolution of Thailand from being a simple client of the United States to becoming a key regional player in its own right. (3) But "omnidirectionality" did not distance the close U.S.-Thai security relationship. Indeed, the U.S.-Thai Cobra Gold annual air, land, and sea operations (begun in 1982), took on added importance during the 1980s, given the occupation by Vietnam of Cambodia. By the late 1980s, economic growth, the winding down of Vietnam's Cambodia venture, and the Cold War's end led to a reassessment by the U.S. and Thailand over their alliance's very nature.
The civilian administration of Chatchai Chunhaven (1988-91) stressed greater disengagement from the United States. Chatchai's government sought to "turn Indochina from a battlefield into a marketplace", and separate economic agreements with Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar. Thailand's post-1988 foreign policy toward Myanmar was guided by "constructive engagement". This friendly approach toward Myanmar's military sought profits for Thai investors in Myanmar and security for the Thai-Myanmar border. Chatchai also sought closer ties with China. Chatchai's Asian trade initiatives coincided with worsening U.S.-Thai economic relations as exemplified in a tussle over U.S. intellectual property rights in Thailand. (4)
The military's return to power (1991-92) saw greater U.S.-Thai security cooperation. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Thailand even served as a refuelling depot for U.S. ships and aircraft. But after the "Black May" 1992 massacre, the U.S. responded with displeasure and the suspending of Cobra Gold. For many Thais though, the measure was too little too late. Indeed, to some, the rather token U.S. response seemed to signal U.S. support for the repression.
The 1992 election victory of the anti-military Democrat Chuan Leekpai saw a subtle backing away by Thailand from the United States. At the same time, the emerging multipolar system, the Cambodian peace agreement, and the election of Democrat Bill Clinton caused U.S. foreign policy advisors to de-emphasize gee-political security and instead prioritize trade (especially in terms of Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation [APEC]), narcotics, and AIDS. Still, Thai cooperation with the U.S. continued, joint military operations under Cobra Gold were renewed and, in 1995, annual exercises between the Thai and U.S. navies under Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) began. In 1993, Thailand and the U.S. signed a logistics agreement making Thai facilities available to U.S. forces when necessary.
At the same time, Thailand became a member of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1993 to demonstrate, at least officially, a foreign policy independent of Washington. When the Clinton administration launched missiles at Baghdad, the Chuan government responded with criticism. Chuan meanwhile refused to comply fully with U.S. demands regarding pharmaceutical patents. Also, Bangkok moved to solidify economic ties with China, Russia, India, and members of ASEAN. (5) To the consternation of the U.S., the Chuan government continued the policy of "constructive engagement" with Myanmar as well as support for the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. (6) In 1994, Chuan even turned down a U.S. request to preposition its naval vessels in the Gulf of Thailand. Clearly, though Thai-U.S. cooperation continued, the Chuan government increasingly sought greater balance toward other countries, especially China. (7) Under Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, U.S.-Thai relations hit a new low. Chavalit had long supported a policy of maintaining equilibrium between China and the U.S. In 1996, Bangkok received military assistance (worth US$3 billion) from Beijing. (8) Chavalit had also long had close ties with Myanmar's military. Both prime ministers Banharn (1995-96) and Chavalit (1996-97), as proponents of "constructive engagement", visited Yangon to shore up ties with its regime. The United States in 1997 began to ban investment to Yangon (given the regime's record of repression) and chided Thailand for its refusal to do the same. Yet Thailand resisted U.S. pressure to give Myanmar the cold shoulder, even helping to ensure Yangon's entry into ASEAN. Some believe that U.S. apathy towards Bangkok's 1997 economic crisis owed partly to its pro-Yangon stance. (9)
The 1997 Asian financial crisis precipitated the fall of Chavalit's government and the accession to office of a coalition under Democrat Chuan Leekpai. But U.S.-Thai tensions had continued to grow. Thais were incensed at Washington's support for IMF conditionality that demanded strict austerity measures and allowed foreigners majority ownership over Thai assets. Thais were appalled when the U.S. blocked the choice of a Thai to head the WTO. Tensions rose over U.S. opposition to an Asian Monetary Fund, (the U.S. feared it would become part of an Asian economic bloc). A feeling grew that America had attenuated Thai sovereignty. (10)
Disappointed by the U.S. stance, the Chuan government informed Washington in 1998 that the latter should not take it for granted that it could always use …