Thai-US meet vi­tal to both

Bangkok Post - - OPINION -

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.

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