Catharin Dalpino, Sharkey Fellow in the Whitehead School at Seton Hall University and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, has a short paper published with East-West Center (PDF) entitled “Obama in Thailand: Charting a New Course for the Alliance?” Key excerpt:
President Barack Obama’s trip to Thailand on November 18 did not have the “first-ever” historic weight of his visit to Myanmar or even to Cambodia, where he attended the East Asia Summit. However, it reaffirmed a relationship that had been in drift, if not disrepair, for the past five years. This lull in relations had been due to distraction more than dispute: Bangkok had been inward-looking after the 2006 coup and several years of political instability after that, while Washington was focused on countries which posed a greater threat to terrorism and on relations in the region with new momentum, such as Indonesia and Myanmar.
Obama’s visit hit a number of symbolic marks. His audience with King Bhumibol Adulyadej corrected an oversight when President George W. Bush visited Thailand in 2008 but failed to meet with the monarch. His meeting with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra signaled US confidence in the resilience of Thailand’s democratic system, although tensions between pro-Thaksin groups and more establishment elements are far from resolved. Beyond these salutes to Thailand’s leaders, this was Obama’s first visit to a US treaty ally in Southeast Asia. Indeed, with Yangon and Phnom Penh his only other stops, Obama would have slighted Thailand if he had not touched down in Bangkok first. This diplomatic catch-up was important, but the Obama and Panetta visits also addressed an underlying question in US-Thai relations since the end of the Cold War: what is the purpose of the treaty alliance in the 21st century? One concrete and immediate answer to this question was Bangkok’s announcement that Thailand will join the Proliferation Security Initiative, expanding cooperation in a critical area.
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.
BP: Thailand has lost the strategic value it had during the Cold War. That the PSI is being talked up shows you there is little happening in the Thai-US relationship. For both the US and Thailand, the questioned hasn’t been answered, where to now and what is the purpose of the relationship? Things are likely to meander along until both sides need each other…