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Two Nations, One Friendship: But is It Still Special?

March 20, 2013

Today, March 20, marks the 180th anniversary of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, making the U.S. bilateral relationship with Thailand the longest uninterrupted diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and any Asian nation. The Thai-American Chamber of Commerce’s theme for 2013 commemorating 180 years of relations is “Two Nations, One Friendship.”

U.S.-Thai relations have been characterized as being “special,” especially during the Cold War, when Thailand was viewed as a front-line state in the war against communism. But with the end of the Cold War, followed by a peaceful settlement of the Cambodian conflict, major power security issues do not have the same salience they once did. Whereas Thailand once feared a possible attack by China and subversion by its ethnic Chinese population, today China is Thailand’s largest trading partner and cultural ties have improved and enhanced considerably.

These developments have altered U.S.-Thailand relations, not necessarily for the worse, but in ways that are challenging nonetheless. Southeast Asia is a much more peaceful, prosperous, and stable region than it was during the Cold War and Thailand has played an important role in this. For decades, Thailand and the U.S. have worked closely together to mitigate illicit drug trafficking, human trafficking, and other criminal activity. Thailand has cooperated with the U.S. in combating terrorism by sharing information on the movement of terrorist organizations. For the past 30 years, Thai and U.S. military forces have held the joint military exercise “Cobra Gold,” which has expanded to become the largest multinational exercise of its kind in the world.

Economic linkages remain robust, with bilateral trade amounting to more than $37 billion in 2012. The U.S. is also one of Thailand’s largest investors, with over 700 companies investing over $40 billion combined. U.S. exports to Thailand include aircraft, agricultural equipment, machinery, chemicals, and medical products. Thailand’s exports to the U.S. include machinery, rubber, shrimp and tuna, agricultural products, and jewelry. Since 2007, Ford has been the largest automotive investor in Thailand, propelling the country to a place among the world’s top 10 auto manufacturers.

But despite these examples of cooperation between the U.S. and Thailand, the relationship seems to be languishing in certain respects, falling short of its potential. Many Thais believe the U.S. takes their country for granted, with Thailand viewed as largely reacting to or responding to U.S. requests – whether allowing U.S. jets traveling across the Pacific to refuel at U-Tapao Air base on the way to Afghanistan or the Middle East, signing the Proliferation Security Initiative, or considering U.S. urging on how to vote on particular issues at the UN, among other issues. Conversely, some argue that Thailand relies too heavily on the historical legacy of the relationship with the U.S., which includes offering elephants as beasts of burden to the U.S. in 1860; sending military personnel to almost every war the U.S. has engaged in from World War I to the present; not declaring war against the U.S. after Thailand was invaded by Japan; and having the world’s only monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, ever born on American soil. Interestingly, all Thai school children know these facts, whereas most Americans are oblivious.

So while the structure of the relationship seems solid, something appears to be missing. Is it the lack of a common enemy as existed during the Cold War?  Is it the asymmetry of the relationship? These questions come at a time when the U.S. is paying greater attention to Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, and wants to rely more on regional institutions, such as ASEAN, to constructively address global problems, including disaster relief and humanitarian assistance, climate change, maritime security, and counter-terrorism. The U.S. would like to see Thailand do more to address regional and global security challenges, but domestic politics in Bangkok since 2006 has distracted Thailand from playing a greater role in regional affairs.

After 180 years, the U.S. and Thailand share a deep historical legacy and the friendship endures. However, while it is important to bear history in mind, a shared historical legacy is not enough. No matter how asymmetrical the relationship might be, it should not be taken for granted. Whether U.S.-Thai relations are “special” in the 21st century can be debated by policymakers and academics in both nations. At a minimum, the relationship should remain “important” in helping to ensure peace, stability, and economic prosperity in Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific, more broadly. But this will require that both nations develop a set of strategic objectives that can be pursued in the future. There is an opportunity this anniversary year to discuss what these strategic objectives might be in the effort to make U.S.-Thai relations more germane in a 21st-century world.

John J. Brandon is director of Regional Cooperation Programs for The Asia Foundation in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jbrandon@asiafound-dc.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.

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