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As Covid-19 case hits Blinken trip, Myanmar may offer path for closer US-Thailand ties

Thai PM Prayuth Chan-ocha. Photo: Reuters

The cancellation of a visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Thailand on Thursday was a “missed opportunity” for the security allies to review areas of cooperation, analysts said. But Bangkok and Washington should now work more closely on the Myanmar crisis to strengthen bilateral relations that had become rocky after the 2014 coup that first brought Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to power.

Jason Tower, country director for the Burma programme at the United States Institute of Peace, said the Myanmar issue offered a significant opportunity for revitalising and strengthening the US-Thailand relationship.

“Options include the US and Thailand partnering to address the growing health crisis by providing highly-effective vaccines across the border; to address the humanitarian crisis by jointly announcing a humanitarian buffer zone along the border; and to address the rising threat of transnational crime by jointly reviewing the growing presence of ‘crime cities’ and criminal activity along the border,” he said.

These could provide a strong basis for the US and Thailand to work closer on tackling regional issues – including deepening security ties to respond to growing threats and building capacities for the provision of joint development aid across the Mekong region, Tower said.

Blinken had been scheduled to begin his Bangkok visit on Thursday morning, meeting Prayuth and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai. But a Covid-19 case in the press corps accompanying him resulted in the delegation heading back to Washington out of an “abundance of caution” after his visit to Malaysia, his second stop in Southeast Asia after Indonesia.

The US top diplomat was expected to engage Thailand in its effort to increase pressure on Myanmar. In Malaysia, Blinken discussed steps to pressure Myanmar and said “genocide” was a term the US administration was considering using to describe the junta’s repression of Rohingya Muslims.

In a call with Pramudwinai to explain the cancellation, Blinken said he looked forward to travelling to Thailand as soon as possible.

Observers said even though the meeting was called off, the Biden administration’s desire to play a more active role in the Indo-Pacific was now clearer to the region than during the Trump era.

Myanmar junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. File photo: Reuters

Dulyapak Preecharush, deputy director of Thammasat University’s Institute of East Asian Studies, said the US and Thailand could still continue holding diplomatic talks on Myanmar, which is facing Western sanctions, economic chaos and violence after military leaders toppled elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

“Blinken’s visit to Southeast Asia was to affirm the US’ pledge to pursue the Indo-Pacific grand strategy, so there’s a big picture to monitor in the future, even though maritime Asean countries like Indonesia or Brunei have been more active in pressuring the Myanmar junta,” Dulyapak said.

Thailand has grown closer to China since 2014, seeking Beijing’s endorsement of the military government and arms deals despite Thailand being the US’ oldest treaty ally in Asia. The alliance cemented ties between both nations particularly during the Cold War as both shared a common threat of communism, said Pongphisoot Busbarat, an assistant professor of international relations at Chulalongkorn University.

The US treaty provided Thailand with access to security and military programmes and to purchase certain arms and equipment with priority and sometimes at special prices, Pongphisoot said. The ties cooled after the 2014 coup but eased somewhat with new defence deals made after Prayuth met former President Donald Trump at the White House in 2017.

A Thai soldier mans a machine gun after the army declares martial law on 2014. File photo: AP

Thailand was bypassed by other senior US officials this year. Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin visited Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines in July, weeks before Vice-President Kamala Harris made a trip to Vietnam.

The US left Thailand out of its recent Democracy Summit, only inviting Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines from the 10-member Asean bloc.

But even as Bangkok welcomed more engagement with Washington, Pongphisoot said it would be reluctant to support US moves to contain China, which is Thailand’s largest trading partner, with bilateral trade rising 32 per cent from January to September this year.

Thailand would also not be keen on keeping up pressure against Myanmar, he said.

“I do not think Thailand wants to join the US in sanctioning or imposing any harsh measures against Myanmar,” Pongphisoot said. “Thailand and many Asean countries normally prefer the ‘Constructive Engagement’ approach that they have adhered to since the 1990s. This approach will be in line with the group’s non-interference principle and expects incremental change from within.”

Meanwhile, Blinken was also supposed to have met top business leaders before his Bangkok visit was cancelled.

Piti Srisangnam, an economics lecturer at Chulalongkorn University, said businesses had been keen to discuss US investment in sectors such as electric vehicles, a growth area for Thailand, as well as opportunities in large infrastructure programmes such as Biden’s Build Back Better Framework to rebuild the Covid-hit economy, and the G7’s Build Back Better World plan designed to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

It had been hoped Blinken’s meeting with the business sector could lay the groundwork for the US-proposed Indo-Pacific economic framework that is expected to be launched in 2022, Piti said.

“The US had proposed that the US-Asean summit be held in the first quarter of 2022, either in person with President Biden or virtually, and that the Indo-Pacific economic framework be discussed even though there was not much detail about it during Blinken’s trip,” he said.

But despite the missed opportunities, the US commitment to Asean was much clearer, Piti said. “Whether or not Blinken visited Bangkok, the US has already resumed its commitment with Asean, which is a clear improvement compared to the Trump era.”