While it is Obama’s fourth (AP)/fifth (AFP) trip to Asia, it will be his first trip to Thailand. Why the visit now?

Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor, didn’t provide a ringing endorsement on the importance of visiting Thailand now, as reported by Bloomberg:

We felt it was very important to begin this trip by visiting a U.S. ally,” Ben Rhodes, deputy U.S. national security adviser, told reporters traveling to Asia with Obama on Air Force One, referring to Thailand. “Allies are the cornerstone of our rebalancing effort in Asia.”

Although, if you look at the transcript of the briefing, Rhodes does provide more details:

But obviously our first stop is in Thailand. As we said the other day, we felt it was very important to begin this trip by visiting a U.S. ally. Allies are the cornerstone of our rebalancing effort in Asia. And Thailand is actually the oldest treaty ally of the United States, an ally since 1954 and a key partner in Southeast Asia.

So it was very important for us to send a signal to the region that allies are going to continue to be the foundation of our approach. I think in Thailand we’ll be focused on a set of issues to include counter-proliferation, nonproliferation. We’ve been working with the Thais to deal with how to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. For instance, the Thais successfully interdicted a shipment from North Korea that was bound for Hamas — not a WMD shipment, but again, smuggling and weaponry. So we’ll be focused on nonproliferation, counter-piracy. We do a lot of work with the Thais on disaster relief. Obviously they had the tragic tsunami there several years ago.

BP: Hamas? Is he referring to the December 2009 seizure – see posts here, here, and here – which is interesting as the time, you heard Iran and Sri Lanka bandied around as destinations, but BP doesn’t remember much mention of Hamas (although in May 2010 the Israeli Foreign Minister specifically linked the shipment to Hamas). Obviously, Rhodes’ portfolio is security and so this is what he discusses, but BP does wonder if Obama was not also visiting Cambodia and Myanmar, would he have visited Thailand now? AP on the importance of Thailand has decreased in Washington:

Obama’s other stops in the region also underscore the potential pitfalls of going all-in in Asia.

Thailand’s 2006 coup, which led to the ouster of the prime minister, strained relations with the U.S. and raised questions in Washington about the stability of its longtime regional ally

In previous trips to Asia, not visiting Thailand could have been understood (given time pressures), but this time to visit Cambodia and Myanmar without visiting Thailand would have been seen as a snub to Thailand.  Clearly, visiting Cambodia, where Obama will attend the ASEAN summit, and Myanmar (see here, here, here, and here about the Myanmar trip)* are the priorities on this trip and not Thailand.

AFP on what will be discussed in Thailand:

Soon after touching down, Obama will have an audience with Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej who has been in ill health, then hold talks and a news conference with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Obama plans to discuss US cooperation with Thailand, counter narcotics issues, terrorism, trade and trafficking, and will inaugurate a programme to connect US and Thai universities.

The Whitehouse website has details of Obama’s itinerary today.

Vikram Nehru of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace previews the Thailand visit:

What will likely come out of Obama’s trip to Thailand?

On his first country stop, Obama has the opportunity to reinforce military ties with Thailand and boost Washington’s initiative to liberalize trade and investment in the region.

The visit comes on the heels of Secretary Panetta’s meetings in Bangkok to reaffirm the U.S.-Thai defense partnership and voice support for Thailand’s role in regional security efforts. U.S. strategists believe Thailand is an important element of a mosaic of Asian countries critical to America’s long-term security objectives.

A broad swathe of countries with broadly similar strategic interests, made up of Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, and India, can act as a counterweight to a rising China. These frontline states would be the ones that will have to deal directly with any increase in Chinese assertiveness in the region.

The other important element of the visit is to applaud Thailand’s wish to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the free trade initiative in the Asia-Pacific championed by Obama. This is just the beginning of Thailand’s involvement, and it will take some time for the country to officially join negotiations.

But Thai interest should significantly boost the Trans-Pacific Partnership and may even encourage other countries to sign up.

BP: So you have security issues (as mentioned by Rhodes above), being a counterweight to China, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Secretary of State Clinton is also visiting Thailand today and Secretary of Defense Panetta was in Bangkok last week. Arguably, the Panetta visit is the more substantive of the visits even if it has attracted less attention. AFP:

Panetta’s visit to Bangkok marks the first face-to-face talks between US and Thai defence ministers since 2008 and comes days before President Barack Obama’s tour that will include stops in Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar.

Thai-US military relations have deep roots, dating back to the Korean war, but American officials said the Pentagon wanted to restore a more strategic dialogue to complement lower-level contacts between military units.

We enjoy great operational cooperation with the Thais and what we’re trying to do is to do bring back the strategic piece,” said a senior defence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The United States suspended military aid to Thailand after a 2006 coup but reinstated the assistance after elections in December 2007.

However, Thailand’s domestic turbulence has diminished Bangkok’s importance for Washington, which is building up partnerships in Southeast Asia.

FT has more:

The regional visit by Mr Obama, en route to the East Asia Summit in Cambodia, will cap an unusual flurry of high-level US diplomatic activity in southeast Asia with Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, landing in Thailand on the same day.

The visits, along with that of Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, on Thursday, are aimed at “deepening ties” with Thailand and its neighbours, say US officials. The moves are part of a strategy the US describes as “rebalancing” or shifting strategic focus and military influence towards Asia.

During talks in Bangkok Mr Panetta agreed to upgrade the US-Thai defence alliance. The agreement includes initiatives to allow Thai and US military forces to work more closely and extend collaboration on regional and multilateral security efforts. As part of this co-operation the US and Thailand will invite neighbouring Myanmar to observe the next joint exercises in Thailand in early 2013.

Obviously, the visits by Obama, Clinton, and Panetta are designed to counter-balance China’s influence in the region. VOA News:

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is the director of Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Security and International Studies.

“President Obama’s administration has treated Southeast Asia as a region, not just as a system of hub and spokes traditionally in U.S. foreign policy,” he said. “But, as a region, very sophisticated this time. And, he’s building on that. At the same time, it’s also designed to counter-balance China.”

Thitinan has more in an op-ed in the Bangkok Post:

Under Mr Obama’s watch, the US has “pivoted” and “rebalanced” its foreign policy intentions and resources towards Asia for the 21st century where the stakes will be the highest and most consequential.

Thailand has hosted all kinds of world leaders but few are accompanied by so much fuss over personal security. Indeed, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao follows Mr Obama to Bangkok routinely and quietly.

The obvious symbolic significance of Mr Obama’s visit will have to be matched by substance on the ground. The most striking take-away from the Obama shuttle diplomacy is likely to be the focus on mainland Southeast Asia. It is a sub-region that is pivotal to America’s pivot.

Unsurprisingly, Mr Obama will land first in Bangkok as a gesture to an old friend of 180 years and a treaty ally through the Cold War. He then hops to Yangon for strategic, symbolic and personal support and encouragement of Myanmar’s reform momentum.

BP: Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will both have audiences with HM the King so Thailand is not seen as favoring one side over the other…

Panitan is quoted in the Bangkok Post with his views on the visit:

The US is keen to set up a humanitarian and disaster relief force at U-Tapao, a naval and air force complex on the eastern seaboard of the Gulf built by the US military during the Vietnam War.

“The return to U-Tapao would be very symbolic for the US, sending a message to China that it is returning to mainland South-East Asia,” said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a military affairs expert at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

But such a development would require the consent of parliament, where it is likely to face strong opposition. Large segments of Thai society might also think twice about having US soldiers based permanently on their soil again, he said.

The US pivot also had established Washington as a rival to Beijing for dominance in South-East Asia.

“The US is returning to Southeast Asia whether you like it or not,” Mr Panitan said. “So do you want to engage in the return or stand idle and be seen as a Chinese satellite?”

BP: BP briefly blogged about the nonsense surrounding the use of Utapao by NASA in June, but there have also been discussions/proposals about using Utapao as a regional humanitarian and disaster relief centre which would then involved US military personnel. Panitan raises some questions about how strong domestic opposition – if time permits, will cover polls on views of the US and Obama’s visit in a latter post – and how Thailand will balance is relationship with the US and China.

NOTE: BP has blogged on the Sino-Thai relationship particularly in light of Thailand’s close relationship with the US – see hereherehere, and here, and the Sino-Thai relationship is interesting on a few different other levels.

On TPP, Bloomberg:

Thailand plans to formally enter talks on a U.S.-led Pacific region trade deal when President Barack Obama visits the country next week, government spokesman Tosaporn Sererak told reporters.

Thailand would become the 12th country to join negotiations in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Obama’s top trade priority. Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy would be the fifth country in the talks that does not already have a free-trade agreement with the U.S., along with New Zealand, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.

“It represents new market access for American companies,” Deborah K. Elms, head of the Temasek Foundation Centre for Trade & Negotiations in Singapore, said by e-mail. “Thailand really must be involved in the TPP for its own economic interests. You cannot have aspirations of being part of the supply chains in Asia, especially, if you are not part of the TPP as it gets up and running.”

Peter Petri, a nonresident senior fellow with the East-West Center, a professor of international finance at Brandeis University and visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, for CNN:

If Thailand joins the TPP, it would be one of its biggest beneficiaries. Estimates that colleagues and I have done at the East-West Center and the Peterson Institute for International Economics show that the TPP would generate global income gains of $451 billion per year in 2025, assuming that Japan, Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand eventually join the 11 countries now negotiating.  That is more than what the Doha Round could deliver, even if completed.

We also estimate that Thailand would have the second-largest percentage gains among potential members, with incomes rising by 7.6 percent as a result of a TPP agreement – only Vietnam would do better. The United States would gain more in dollar terms, but its percentage gains would be only 0.5 percent of GDP.

Thailand’s large potential gains are explained by its unusual trading position. As Southeast Asia’s main mid-level manufacturing hub, Thailand has powerful clusters in automobiles, computers and telecommunications, industries with fluid global production bases.  Due partly to rising wages and slowing growth in China, Thailand is now poised to gain market shares, particularly in North America. These manufacturing strengths are also reinforced by Thailand’s strategic role in services – banking, transport and logistics – including in the dynamic, emerging economies to its west.

However, there is also strong opposition in Thailand to joining the TPP. FTA Watch as quoted in the Bangkok Post:

In an open letter to Ms Yingluck , FTA Watch encouraged the prime minister to put planned negotiations to become a TPP member on hold until a proper and thorough study into the advantages and disadvantages of TPP membership is conducted and the results are publicised.

“Of course, Thailand should never stop developing trade and international relations, but this very important matter should not be done in haste,” FTA Watch said.

“If the government cares only about trade opportunities, the country’s public welfare and sustainable development could be greatly impacted by TPP membership.”

BP: There will be strong domestic opposition, especially amongst entrenched interests in Thailand, so the Yingluck government will need to need to be careful as the “losers” from TPP will unlikely be quiet…

The Bangkok Post on Thailand’s nuanced position about entering TPP:

However, Ms Yingluck said she would ask for more details of the TPP _ which has been criticised by some US congressmen and foreign policy experts for not being transparent _ so it could be further studied. Local academics and consumer advocates have warned that entry into the TPP would hurt consumers and Thailand’s economic competitiveness.

“A number of parties have expressed concern about Thailand’s participation in the TPP,” Ms Yingluck said.

No agreement has been made. We are only expressing interest in studying the details and the pros and cons. … There will be no talks with [US] President Barack Obama.

Suranand Vejjajiva, the PM’s secretary-general, said no firm commitment or negotiations would be held between the two leaders today. “There will be neither a negotiation nor a signing [of the TPP] when the two leaders meet. The premier will only announce Thailand’s intention to enter into the negotiations in a joint press statement,” Mr Suranand said.

Ms Yingluck said any final decision to join the TPP would have to be approved by the cabinet and the parliament, and that the views of all parties would be considered before any decision is made.

BP: Yingluck’s phrasing appears to be to dampen down domestic criticism and to say we are only in the early stages, but over time, opposition to the TPP will likely grow….

*Obama even has a family connection with Myanmar