Thai-US meet vital to both
The “temporary postponement” of the official visit to the United States by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha was not entirely unexpected. It was, however, a disappointment. The trip to Washington had been under intense planning for well over two months. Gen Prayut’s opportunity to get Thai-US relations on a proper footing with President Donald Trump is now delayed, with both sides saying they will set a later date for the meeting.
The cancellation of the July 19 trip came in a very low-key manner. That was in contrast to the very public announcement of Mr Trump’s invitation the night of April 30. Then, Government House and the White House both issued press releases. Now, word that the trip was off was made extremely quietly, by a “government source”, with the media not permitted to identify the official involved.
There was no particular reason given beyond a need “to consider the framework of the discussion”, as informed by the government source.
A reasonable guess is that there is no progress on trade issues or that the US and Thai governments do not yet see eye-to-eye on the threat from North Korea and what to do about it. This became a major issue for Washington last week. North Korea tested a ballistic missile that, for the first time, experts believe could reach US territory, specifically the edge of Alaska. This put stronger emphasis than ever on a proposal that Mr Trump intended to make to Gen Prayut — that Thailand halt all trade and effectively cut off diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.
That was already made clear as early as two months ago. Then on May 22, US Ambassador Glyn T Davies made it specific. In his oped on this page, the ambassador wrote: “Thailand has an important role to play in the broad effort to signal to North Korea it will be isolated...” Mr Trump tweeted extreme displeasure at Beijing last week for increasing trade with North Korea, and it is clear the US wants action from Thailand.
This poses serious problems. Statistically, Thailand is North Korea’s fifth-biggest trade partner. But it’s a paltry amount. Last year, according to the European Union’s trackers, Thai-North Korean trade totalled €92 million, about 3.6 billion baht. Pyongyang buys less than one-half of one per cent of Thai exports. There’s nothing Thailand buys from North Korea that it cannot obtain elsewhere.
But Thailand’s main export is mobile phone services. A subsidiary of Loxley Plc provides wireless communications for the tiny number of people permitted to use it in North Korea. It is true that for three decades Pyongyang has either been at Thailand’s throat or its feet. It has tried to use Thailand to smuggle drugs, arms and counterfeit money. And it has as recently as 2015 urged Thai investment, telling then-foreign minister Tanasak Patimapragorn, “Thais are trustworthy and don’t interfere in matters that don’t involve them”.
It is a huge disappointment that neither the White House or Government House has been able to solve the problem that has delayed a Prayut-Trump summit. An official visit to Washington is an extremely big deal. In Thai history, only one previous military leader had been allowed at the White House. This was the meeting meant to break down and reverse the cold and occasionally nasty US treatment of Thailand over the May, 2014, coup.
This presents an urgent mission to the US State Department and the Sri Ayutthaya Building. Secretary Rex Tillerson — who knows Thailand well — and Minister Don Pramudwinai must solve the problem blocking a PrayutTrump meeting. This is far too important an opportunity to let slip away.
A reasonable guess is that the US and Thai governments do not yet see eye-to-eye on the threat from North Korea.