ASIA HAND When allies drift apart
By Shawn W Crispin
BANGKOK - When a Thai court last year refused to turn over an Iranian national
United States authorities claimed was part of a missile parts smuggling
operation, it marked the first-ever failed extradition between the two
long-time strategic allies. The Thais ruled that because the suspect was an
active Iranian military official, he was exempt under their bilateral
extradition treaty with the US.
The two sides are now wrestling again over the extradition of Viktor Bout, the
alleged Russian arms dealer nabbed last year in a US Drug Enforcement Agency
sting operation in Bangkok. While the Americans claim Bout has conspired to
kill US citizens, the Thais have allowed the judicial review to drag for months
and initially appointed an inexperienced judge to preside
over the hearings. The Thai prosecutor meanwhile has failed to introduce lines
of questioning recommended by the US Embassy and Foreign Ministry officials
have told their US counterparts they must also consider bilateral ties with
Russia in handling the case.
Thailand's lack of cooperation on such key US security issues marks a
significant departure for the bilateral relationship, signaling to some that
Washington is slowly but surely losing influence over its long time strategic
ally. It was only five years ago that the US granted Thailand major non-North
Atlantic Treaty Organization treaty status, a military reward for Bangkok's
cooperation in Washington's "war on terror" campaign, including the capture
outside of Bangkok of key al-Qaeda suspect Riduan Isamuddin, better known as
Thai and US officials now acknowledge the relationship has drifted, due to
diverging strategic interests and mounting trade tensions over intellectual
property protection issues and the failed negotiation of a bilateral free-trade
agreement (FTA) that Thai officials feel retrospectively was being foisted on
them. Thailand's new willingness to confront the US on core strategic and trade
issues heralds a potentially important shift from a US-dominated unipolar era
to a new China-inclusive bipolar regional balance of power.
The US has lost substantial regional ground to China, which has leveraged soft
power initiatives and economic integration into hard power gains, including
unprecedented joint naval and later this year special forces operations with
Thailand. The US maintains substantial military, intelligence and law
enforcement ties with Thailand, including the annual Cobra Gold joint military
exercises, but some analysts now contend that's led to an over-securitization
of the relationship.
Meanwhile, US-Thai economic ties have hit a new nadir, stemming from a US Trade
Representative Office's decision in 2007 to put Thailand on its "priority watch
list" of the world's worst intellectual property offenders. The downgrade was a
reaction to the Thai government's use of so-called compulsory licensing to
produce and distribute cheaper generic versions of drugs - including HIV/AIDS
and cancer medicines - on which US pharmaceutical companies hold patents. The
tussle, both US and Thai officials acknowledge, has undermined "trust" in
bilateral economic ties.
Beyond business, it's also clear that Thailand fails to share the US's threat
perception of China's rapid regional rise. Thai foreign policy wonks point to
the fact that China acceded in 2003 to the Association of Southeast Asian
Nation's (ASEAN) treaty of amity and cooperation while the US five years later
still refuses to sign on. One Bangkok-based Chinese diplomat says that any US
attempt to contain China would be neither "realistic" nor "pragmatic" because
of its growing economic integration with the region, and that any such move
would have "no support" from Thailand or other regional countries.
That assessment, however, is probably only half right. Bangkok's Institute of
Security and International Studies (ISIS) director Thitinan Pongsudhirak sees a
peninsular-versus-mainland dichotomy emerging in Southeast Asia, with mainland
states falling under Beijing's sway and island nations (including coastal
Vietnam) insecure about China's rise in the strategic league with the US. With
Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar now firmly in China's orbit, Thailand, with feet in
both camps, is thus key to Beijing's mainland consolidation.
Emma Chanlett-Avery, a US Congressional Research Service specialist, views
US-Thai ties as a "legacy alliance" without a "sustaining strategic dialogue".
She says that the US defense establishment wonders whether Thailand could be
trusted as a treaty ally if a conflict with China ever erupted. One telling
test of that allegiance could come from a US request - as part of the
Pentagon's ongoing transformation and realignment initiatives - to relocate
strategic assets from Northeast Asia to Thai military facilities, a potential
proposal that China would no doubt resist.
New best friend
It is thus no doubt significant that new US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
chose to visit Indonesia and sidestep Thailand during her first trip to
Southeast Asia. Some in Bangkok see a Thai snub in Clinton's travel schedule,
where the US's top diplomat visits the region and leaves just a week before
Thailand plays host to the ASEAN annual summit meeting - an event past US
secretaries have attended. While some commentators have pointed to the
symbolism of Clinton's Indonesia visit, in light of President Barack Obama's
time there as a youth, others view it as the first overture towards forging a
new strategic relationship with the island nation.
Military experts say securing new maritime bases outside of Northeast Asia
would give the US 7th Fleet significant new naval forward projection
capabilities vis-a-vis China, particularly for the US's ability in a potential
conflict to blockade the nearby Strait of Malacca, where its estimated 70%-80%
of China's imported fuel now flows. Indonesia, which has competing maritime
claims with China including in oil and gas rich areas, is believed to view
warily China's fast improving naval capabilities.
Still it's not clear that the US intends any time soon to downgrade its
strategic commitment to Thailand. US diplomats and Thai Foreign Ministry
officials speak to the need to "refresh" rather than radically overhaul the
relationship. But if Obama's gambit to recast US diplomacy towards countries
with (supposed) shared democratic values, then Indonesia's fast-emerging
democracy arguably better meets those criteria than Thailand's backslide to
military-influenced politics and a gathering crackdown on free expression, in
the name of upholding a monarchy.
Obama's announcement that he would shutter all the secret prisons the George W
Bush administration established in allied countries to detain and interrogate
captured terror suspects spoke directly to Thailand and its complicity in the
controversial policy. A US Embassy official in Bangkok previously admitted such
a facility once existed in Thailand, but that it was closed down after The
Washington Post exposed it and in later reporting revealed the torture
techniques used against terror suspects there.
The US's intimate ties to elite and influential retired Thai military
officials, long-time relationships often forged in the conflicts of the Cold
War era, has arguably compromised Washington's ability to genuinely promote
democracy and human rights in Thailand. Those foreign policy objectives were
under Bush subordinated to strategic concerns, which often cross-cut democracy
promotion initiatives - as the US's secret prison policy demonstrated.
There is a nagging suspicion among some Thai observers that the US gave the
wink to the military coupmakers who in 2006 toppled Thaksin Shinawatra's
democratically elected and, perceived by some in Washington, a China-leaning
government. The Thai military has since become a prominent force in politics
and there are mounting concerns the top brass might suspend democracy
altogether to ensure a smooth royal succession after King Bhumibol Adulyadej
eventually passes from the scene.
Whether the US would be willing to downgrade its strategic commitment to
Thailand in such an eventuality would be an important test of Obama's
proclaimed democratic commitment. One US participant at a recent ISIS event
held in Thailand stressed the importance of US access to Thailand's U-Tapao air
base, the only facility in Southeast Asia capable of supporting large-scale
logistical operations, was "impossible to underestimate" to its military
The US has made liberal use of those Thai facilities to land and refuel
aircraft traveling across the Pacific on their way to military campaigns in
Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus some believe the patron-client dependency dynamic
that characterized US-Thai ties during the Cold War, when Washington showered
Bangkok with desperately needed military and economic assistance, has shifted
in the new bipolar regional order. Says one former Thai ambassador: "The US is
simply less important to us than it was in the past."
Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor. He may be
reached at email@example.com.