Bangkok’s take-away from the US
Thailand should be grateful to the U.S. regarding the latest Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) because it helps to expose what is really inside the hearts and minds of Washington’s policy-makers and how the world’s most powerful country views others and the region’s oldest ally.
From now on Thailand has to be realistic and forthright when it comes to assessing its relations with the U.S. They have already forgotten the U.S. response when Thailand faced the economic crisis in July 1997. Apparently, the 183-year-old ties and other Thai “expedient” efforts which the U.S. senior officials often alluded to and seem highly appreciative of have no bearing as they do not serve “immediate and core U.S. interests” at this juncture.
Indeed, Thailand should be solely blamed as it does not a comprehensive strategy to engage with the U.S. and the inability to forecast the U.S.’ behavior. The problem is, Thailand and the U.S. used to have common enemies but they have never been enemies. They were friends and on the same side — with the exception of voting at the United Nations with little less than 20 percent of similar votes.
The two countries have never fought war — unlike Vietnam, Malaysia and Myanmar, which know exactly how to rub shoulders with the Americans and extract concessions. They were enemies before and now they are friends so they do not take each other for granted.
Look at all these exhibits, how the U.S. has morphed over the decades. Just recently, U.S. President Barrack Obama hosted Vietnam’s Communist Party Chief Nguyen Phu Trong. It was an amazing diplomatic feat given their past common histories. Vietnam decided to join the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), knowing full well it would be a tough call. Since it was a political decision, it would be interesting to follow what Hanoi would be willing to yield under the TPP and the ASEAN-led framework known as the Regional Economic Comprehensive Framework (RCEP), which is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year.
Malaysia Upgraded to Tier 2
So was Malaysia — its decision to join the TPP negotiation was very wise one except for Kuala Lumpur’s lack of confidence that it would be able to carry out the process to the very end due to domestic constraints. Last week, Washington dutifully came to the rescue to ensure that Malaysia got the upgrade to Tier 2—Watch List to be eligible as a TPP signatory if the negotiations finish soon.
Before it assumes the ASEAN chairmanship this year, Kuala Lumpur also went for the non-permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, which it serves as president next year. Malaysia also knows that the TPP negotiation would augment its bargain power as the U.S. wants more Asian friends to do the free-trade frameworks.
In the case of Myanmar, the government also knows how to give in and stand firm against the U.S. and the best timing to do so. Just examine Nayphidaw’s prevailing attitude toward the reform since 2011: it has been systematically plotted and executed. That was the pathway the Myanmar’s leaders wanted to follow from the beginning. So, the country is still on the Tier 2 Watch list even though it did not improve much on the TIP criteria, not to mention all the controversies associated with the Rohinya. Myanmar knows that the current U.S. administration’s legacy in Asia rests on relations with Myanmar. So, Washington cannot slaughter its golden goose.
In the case of Thailand, Thai policy makers just wavered without any direction. Literally, just a few hours before the planned visit of U.S. President Barrack Obama to Thailand for a brief stop on Nov. 18, 2012, Thailand decided to enter into negotiation for the TPP. At the time, Thailand was only interested in doing the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement. But the Americans chose to play along. After Obama left town, the Thais returned to their mai-penrai (never mind) mode — pulled back from the process. Bangkok wanted to make sure that Obama visited Bangkok by appearing enthusiastic about the TPP.
Under the former Thai leader, Thaksin Shinawatra, who had a good rapport with former U.S. President George W. Bush, both sides agreed to start a fast-track negotiation on free trade. Thailand helped to arrest Hambali, the al-Qaida leader in Asia in August 2003. Two months later, the two leaders agreed that the free trade negotiation would begin June 2004. After nearly two years of negotiation, it was called off.
‘US creditability is harmed’
Fast forward to the present: never before has the TIP report produced such a black hole for the U.S. foreign policy and its ties with friends. Even congressman Chris Smith, the father of the law that gave birth to the TIP reports, was not impressed.
Last week, he spoke in front of the U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry, during an Iran hearing: “China convicted 35 traffickers, Malaysia three, and Thailand 157— but only Thailand is Tier 3. What message does that send? When we engage in trafficking cronyism — giving a free pass to new friends and partners for reasons unrelated to the suffering of trafficking victims – U.S. creditability is harmed, U.S. leadership is undermined, and he trafficking victims are left helpless and alone.”