UNITED STATES Secretary of State Rex Tillerson touched down in Bangkok on Tuesday, in the highest-level visit to Thailand from a US official since the military coup of 2014.
Despite accusations from US President Donald Trump’s administration that Thailand was a “trade cheat,” further souring tense relations post-coup, Tillerson’s visit to Thailand is aimed at strengthening cooperation on security, trade and investment.
Following the Asean Regional Forum over the weekend, Tillerson’s priority has also been to urge Southeast Asian countries to do more to help cut funding streams for North Korea. Tillerson has said the door to dialogue is open if North Korea halts its recent series of missile tests.
But Thailand’s own politics and human rights record will also be in focus, as Washington strengthens relations with its oldest ally in the region after they were downgraded following the coup.
Thailand’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Busadee Santipitaks highlighted the importance of the visit for Thailand. She told Reuters there were “many issues which we will cover, including the tight relationship and friendship.”
Trump has spoken to Thailand’s military junta leader Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and invited him to the White House, but no date has been set yet.
Human rights groups have voiced concern about the re-establishment of normal relations between US and Thailand while the junta continues to crack down on critics of the monarchy and the military.
“We can expect both sides will offer up the old trope typically trotted during US-Thailand diplomatic meetings: Thailand is America’s ‘oldest ally in Asia,’ the product of a diplomatic ‘friendship’ forged in 1833,” wrote Human Rights Watch’s Asia advocacy director John Sifton last week in the Bangkok Post.
“There is no masking the ugly political realities behind the visit – the fact that Thailand is ruled by a military junta and the Trump administration has shown little concern for its democratic deterioration,” he said.
“It would be a practical mistake for Tillerson to not condition positive diplomatic relations on improvements in the protection of human rights,” Fortify Rights’ Matthew Smith told Reuters.
Thailand’s military seized power in May 2014 after months of street protests with a promise to eventually restore democracy, but elections will not happen before next year and a new constitution retains a powerful political say for the army.
Since the coup, Thailand has since aligned itself more closely with Beijing. Thailand this year has approved Chinese submarines, tank and helicopter purchases worth more than US$500 million as well as construction of a new rail link.
Another source of friction with the Trump administration is Thailand’s trade surplus over US. It was the 11th largest last year at nearly US$19 billion, although Thai officials expect a sharp rise in US imports to reduce it.
Additional reporting by Reuters