Academic journal article Strategic Forum

Diverging Roads: 21st-Century U.S.-Thai Defense Relations

Academic journal article Strategic Forum

Diverging Roads: 21st-Century U.S.-Thai Defense Relations

Article excerpt

Key Points

The 175th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce in 2008 was seized by both Thailand and the United States as a reason for celebrating a long and mutually beneficial treaty alliance. This alliance has been defined by the shared though not uncomplicated commitment to democracy and human rights, and the common interest in free and fair trade, all of which inform the tradition of bilateral cooperation.

For the last 50 years, Thailand supported a continuous U.S. presence in the region, offered unfettered access to port and airfield facilities to the American military, and provided unparalleled training opportunities for U.S. forces. Since the 1980s, Thailand has hosted and participated in strategically important exercise opportunities, which have given substance to a continuous Thai commitment to interoperability with the U.S. military.

Thailand's security equities paralleled evolving U.S. defense priorities as transnational threats in the 1980s and 1990s began to overwhelm the resources of all regional players. These threats also began to tax the ability of individual allies and partners outside the region to respond to burgeoning requirements for new defense and security capabilities, modernized hardware, and new strategic thinking.

The U.S.-Thai defense relationship, however, has been in a long, awkward transitional moment since at least the late 1990s. The close and friendly relationship between leaders has evolved, if only as the result of natural selection's insidious impact on both sides. The practical basis for military interoperability and the strategic thinking at the core of the relationship have also changed. All this has happened without the emergence of an effective mechanism for restructuring the practical interactions that constitute the military-to-military relationship, and without the intellectual investment necessary to infuse new strategic meaning into the relationship.

Defense Cooperation

Security issues were the core motivating force behind Washington's commitment to preserve Thailand's sovereignty and dignity at the end of World War II--even as our British and French allies sought to treat the kingdom as a belligerent that should have been occupied and compelled to pay reparations for its wartime alliance with Japan. The rationale for the postwar alliance with the United States was the common commitment to opposing and containing the threat of communism.

The Manila Treaty that created the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), and the reaffirmation of the U.S. security commitment to Thailand in the 1962 Rusk-Thanat agreement, provided the legal basis for the alliance and focused U.S. and Thai attention on responding to the security threats posed by external communist threats from China and Vietnam and the internal communist insurgency. America's involvement in the Vietnam War deepened the alliance and turned Thailand into an indispensable ally that hosted a massive U.S. presence based on U.S.-built airfields, an important deepwater port at Sattahip, and a military communications infrastructure that became a critical support and logistics base for conducting the war in Vietnam.

From the early 1950s to the end of the Vietnam War, the Royal Thai Armed Forces received U.S. military training, equipment, counterinsurgency training, arms, ammunition, assistance with road building and infrastructure development in remote areas, and vehicles that helped build Thailand's police force and its military's special operations capabilities. The relationship effectively lapsed in the face of America's diminished interest in overseas commitments at the end of the Vietnam War and in the aftermath of the Thai decision to limit U.S. military access to facilities following the unilateral American decision to respond to the seizing of the Mayaguez without consulting with Bangkok on the use of Utapao airbase. …

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