Bangkok Post

Visit to US is well timed


Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is well advised to take up US President Donald Trump’s offer to pay an official visit to Washington. The cabinet secretaria­t said the countries are scheduling the trip for next month. Mr Trump’s informal invitation came in a phone call to the prime minister last month as he began to reach out to US allies in Asia to seek their cooperatio­n in containing the threats of the North Korean nuclear and missile programmes. It marks a promising reversal from the ice-cold diplomacy ordered by then president Barack Obama after the 2014 coup, and which is still kept in force by the US State Department.

That policy was clear but never written down in stone. However, it now looks set to take a back seat as Mr Trump has tried to gather as many allies in the region as possible to pressure North Korea to stop its nuclear weapons programme.

For Thailand, a lot of unnecessar­y harm and bad feelings have been caused by the US since the coup. The US snub has had a dramatic effect. Prime Minister Prayut and Mr Trump could repair some of the damage. Relations can resume forward momentum if the two leaders are willing.

After effectivel­y being blackballe­d by Washington, Europe and Australia, Thailand looked elsewhere. It is obvious to everyone that the military regime has become cosy with China. Many see Bangkok-Beijing relations as being far too friendly. Having close relations with the Middle Kingdom has been highly advantageo­us to China, but not entirely beneficial to Thailand.

One assumes the Prayut-Trump talks will centre on trade where, again, Beijing is an important part of the discussion­s. Unlike its neighbours, Thailand was never part of Mr Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnershi­p (TPP), which has been rubbished by Mr Trump. But the demise and likely death of the TPP have pushed Thailand and Asean further into what is fairly described as the alternativ­e — the China-backed Regional Comprehens­ive Economic Partnershi­p.

Ironically, Mr Trump, like China’s President Xi Jinping, prefers to deal with nations bilaterall­y. And officially, he and his administra­tion consider Thai-US trade as another “problem” for Washington. Thailand has a trade surplus of $19 billion with America. Most fair people believe that is because Thailand works harder to produce and sell more products and services than the US. However, Mr Trump and his supporters think large trade deficits are a serious problem for the US.

An official visit by Gen Prayut has the potential to get the two old friends and allies talking about such problems. The US under Mr Obama made its point about democracy and coups long ago. Under US law, certain items are not available to Thailand so long as it is under the thumb of the military. However, those items do not include regular diplomacy, economic investment, continuing trade or common decency between the two countries.

In the wake of the latest round of missile testing by Pyongyang, Mr Trump has set aside his previous trade dispute with China in exchange for its cooperatio­n to keep up the diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea.

A similar approach has been seen in his invitation for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to visit the White House, disregardi­ng Mr Duterte’s war on drugs policy that has resulted in extra-judicial killings. He seems to have done the same in inviting Gen Prayut to Washington even though he was a coup-maker and is the head of a militaryap­pointed government.

Thai foreign policy has always has stressed good relations with all countries. The US has long had a special relationsh­ip with Thailand, including wars in Korea and Vietnam. This time, in addition to trade issues, cooperatio­n to contain the North Korean threat seems high on the US agenda. Gen Prayut must tread carefully to ensure any commitment­s are based on mutual benefits.

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