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Deeper Thai-U.S. Relations Needed

January 28, 2009

The United States and Thailand share much in common at present: both have new governments; their leaders, Barack Obama and Abhisit Vijajajiva, are youthful, possess international backgrounds, and are leaders of their respective Democrat Parties. Both President Obama and Prime Minister Abhisit are trying to implement controversial stimulus packages to jump-start their economies. Their respective political futures depend on the success of these stimulus packages as both the U.S. and Thailand are forecast to experience negative economic growth in 2009.

Given the enormous domestic problems the U.S. and Thailand are facing, it is understandable that both nations may be looking inward in order to appease their domestic constituents. But it would be a mistake for both nations not to try to reinvigorate the relationship between the two countries. This is important not just for Thailand, but for all of Southeast Asia, as Thailand is this year’s Chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In the coming year, Thailand has the chance to act as a leader in the region. It is no longer sufficient that ASEAN views itself as being at the center of regional initiatives such as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, the ASEAN Regional Forum, and the East Asia Summit. ASEAN needs to show the United States, and the rest of the world, that it has the ability to be a “driving force” in Asia, as opposed to just sitting in the “driver’s seat.”

But given the plethora of domestic and foreign policy challenges the U.S. is facing — unprecedented budget deficits, massive job losses, the worst economic decline since the Great Depression, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the crisis in Gaza, and the global war on terror — how might Southeast Asia capture America’s attention in a positive, constructive way?

From February 27 to March 1, Thailand will host a summit of ASEAN leaders. Thailand should take this opportunity to work with its fellow ASEAN members to develop a strategy to cultivate a deeper, more meaningful relationship with the United States. ASEAN needs to show why the region deserves greater attention from the U.S. America’s leadership is important for progress in energy security and environmental issues. Eighty percent of the world’s oil and liquefied natural gas either emanates from or is transported through Southeast Asia. Moreover, Southeast Asia may want to become part of President Obama’s “truly global coalition” to reduce greenhouse gases in order to curb global warming. Given Southeast Asia’s importance to these issues it would be prudent for the U.S. and ASEAN to begin a new dialogue on energy security and climate change, perhaps at the first ever U.S.-ASEAN summit. If this could be accomplished, it would illustrate that ASEAN has met a test of relevance by putting substance ahead of form.

Simultaneously, the U.S. needs to work harder to engage Southeast Asia. One way, as recommended by The Asia Foundation’s America’s Role in Asia report, would be for the U.S. to sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC). Doing this would show that the U.S. recognizes and respects the growing desire in ASEAN, and in the Asia-Pacific region more broadly, to forge a regional identity. Failure by the U.S. to sign the TAC will only reinforce the view that the U.S. is indifferent to dynamics in the region.

The past three years in Thailand have been marked by political instability. As Thailand’s economy enters recession, Prime Minister Abhisit’s political opponents will exploit increased economic hardship in an attempt to discredit his government and its policies. But if, under Thailand’s chairmanship, ASEAN were to engage in a meaningful dialogue with the U.S. on energy security and climate change, and the U.S. were to sign the TAC and the first U.S.-ASEAN summit were to be held, it would demonstrate that Thailand has become a regional leader and its chairmanship of ASEAN in 2009 was a success. Such developments would bode well for Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia at a time when the U.S. is attempting to figure out where Southeast Asia as a region fits into its global political and strategic calculus.

John Brandon is The Asia Foundation’s Director for International Relations programs. He can be reached at jbrandon@asiafound-dc.org.

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