U.S.-Thai Relations after 9/11: A New Era in Cooperation?

By Chambers, Paul | Contemporary Southeast Asia, December 2004 | Go to article overview

U.S.-Thai Relations after 9/11: A New Era in Cooperation?


Chambers, Paul, Contemporary Southeast Asia


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.

Introduction

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. …

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