Can U.S. Assistance Reinvigorate the U.S.-Thai Alliance?
December 8, 2021
Mainland Southeast Asia is a pivotal region in the geostrategic landscape. It is also the area of the Indo-Pacific region where the United States and its allies are the least well-equipped to compete with China. Within this context, Thailand is poised to play a crucial role in shaping stability, prosperity, and the geopolitical balance. Thailand is ASEAN’s second-largest economy and the subregion’s economic hub. Thailand is critical for promoting subregional cooperation and economic integration. As the only country that shares borders with Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos, Thailand has a major stake in the future of the Mekong River. It is also the largest trading partner for Laos, and a key destination for migrant workers from Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia. Thailand’s role in mitigating the crisis in Myanmar, while often criticized, will be crucial to any viable pathway back to peace and democracy. Given Thailand’s extensive cooperation with China—and its treaty alliance with the United States—this subregional middle power is likely to influence the geopolitical balance in this region for years to come.
Arguably, U.S.-Thai relations matter now more than ever. Since 2018, the United States has been expanding security cooperation with Thailand, after the historic lows following the post-2014 coup. In mid-2021, U.S. vaccine diplomacy also proved to be a major breakthrough. Just as the Delta variant was ripping through the region, and in response to urgent requests from key segments of Thai society, the United States donated of 2.5 million Pfizer doses, along with $5 million in assistance for Covid response. Meanwhile, millions of Thais are eagerly awaiting the arrival of vaccine orders from Pfizer and Moderna in the coming months.
But what about U.S. assistance to Thailand more broadly? Officially, USAID has no bilateral program. Thailand graduated from U.S. assistance in 1995, and, given USAID’s focus on the Journey to Self-Reliance, it is unlikely that the United States will restart a dedicated bilateral aid program. Despite this, U.S. assistance programs continue to operate in Thailand, albeit mostly through regional activities. Some forms of U.S. assistance are highly valued and have contributed to positive U.S.-Thai relations in recent years. For instance, U.S. regional programs on health and law enforcement were implemented in close cooperation with the Thai government and have made important contributions to the bilateral relationship. Other areas of assistance, however, have been irritants in the relationship, particularly democratic governance and programs addressing the ongoing conflict in the southern provinces of Thailand.
Recent developments at USAID indicate an important shift towards more strategic cooperation with Thailand on development assistance. Recognizing the important role that Thailand plays in supporting development in the rest of the region, USAID is embarking on a new partnership with the Thailand International Cooperation Agency (TICA). In August, USAID and TICA announced a new, $5 million partnership to jointly support development in neighboring countries. The recently released Regional Development Cooperation Strategy (2020–2025) includes a commitment by USAID to “elevate Thailand’s role within the region” through more trilateral cooperation in third countries.
This new strategy is a possible game-changer for the U.S.-Thai relationship. Thailand has a clear stake in ensuring that development in this region is done in a way that protects against external influence. For example, the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS), initiated by Thailand in 2003, is an important effort to provide alternative financing for development and infrastructure for the five Lower Mekong countries without the accompanying pressure of an external power. A 2019 study found that there are 13 separate multilateral development schemes in mainland Southeast Asia, but only ACMECS includes the five governments and no external powers. This is a crucial advantage when compared to the Mekong-U.S. Partnership or Lancang-Mekong Cooperation. Admittedly, ACMECS has been very slow to take shape and is unlikely to be a serious provider of development finance in the coming years. But as a platform for the five countries in the region to come together, it is an important step towards greater self-determination of the development and geopolitical trajectory of the region.
Despite recent progress, if U.S. assistance is going to reinvigorate the U.S.-Thai Alliance, then a few other changes are needed. First, U.S. assistance needs to work more closely with the Thai government. USAID programs are delivered through the Regional Development Mission Asia (RDMA), which manages a complex portfolio of regional programs across Asia. In normal circumstances, USAID bilateral missions are 100 percent dedicated to a single country, manage a pipeline of programs in that country, and invest in building relationships with the counterpart government. For RDMA, Thailand is a very small part of their portfolio, there is no dedicated bilateral budget, and as such it is often more challenging for them to develop relations with the Thai government compared to bilateral missions.
The situation is further complicated by U.S. government-funded programs that focus on sensitive issues for the Thai government. For the past 25 years, as economic development assistance and direct support to the Thai government were phased out, U.S. funding has continued to support a range of democratic governance and peacebuilding programs in Thailand that have largely been implemented by civil society and U.S. contractors. They include programs in the conflict-affected regions of southern Thailand and various political participation and democracy promotion activities. Given Thailand’s ongoing problems with military coups, eroding democratic norms, and human rights violations, these issues are important for Thailand’s future. However, the focus of U.S. assistance on these problematic areas has created mistrust among Thai diplomats and senior officials.
While the U.S. government’s interest in these areas is justifiable and likely to continue, without significant changes these programs will continue to be an irritant in U.S.-Thai relations.
The most effective way for U.S. assistance to strengthen the U.S.-Thai relationship, is to prioritize areas of shared interest and respect Thai sensitivities. The new strategy for trilateral cooperation in the Mekong subregion is a great start. But the United States could also support Thailand with its efforts to escape the middle-income trap, jumpstart post-Covid economic recovery in the tourism sector, promote innovation and start-up led growth, and strengthen the Bio-Circular-Green Economy (BCG).
Thailand and the United States have a clear mutual interest in the rest of mainland Southeast Asia. Getting behind efforts that are more Thai-led can help to transform the perception of U.S. assistance and create a new sense of shared strategic interests and cooperation.
Thomas Parks is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Thailand. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.
This article first appeared in the East-West Center’s Asia Pacific Bulletin, and is reproduced by permission.
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