President Trump welcomed the leader of the Thai military junta to the White House on Monday, emphasizing trade and security interests with Bangkok over human rights concerns. ABC News:
Making no reference to Thailand’s military rule, President Donald Trump on Monday hailed strengthening relations with America’s oldest ally in Asia as he welcomed a junta leader who took power in a coup.
“We’ve had a long and very storied history with Thailand,” Trump said in the Oval Office alongside [Prime Minister] Prayuth, referring to a nearly two-century diplomatic relationship, which the president said has advanced since he took office in January.
“So we have a very strong relationship right now, as of this moment, and it’s getting stronger in the last nine months,” he said, stressing the importance of trade ties, which totaled $40 billion last year, with the U.S. running a $19 billion deficit. “I think we’re going to try and sell a little bit more to you now, make that a little bit better if that’s possible.”
Trump’s approach to Thailand differs remarkably from that of President Obama, who abruptly downgraded U.S. military cooperation with Bangkok and cut security aid after the military seized power in 2014. And the human rights community is predictably outraged by the reversal, arguing that Trump has given away America’s leverage over Thailand and emboldened a backsliding military regime. In a typical quote to Reuters, for instance, Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch called the White House invitation a “propaganda victory for Prayuth” that “will come at the expense of the people of Thailand, who will pay for it in the form of intensified repression.”
It’s a nice sound byte, but the uncomfortable truth is that there is simply no evidence that Obama’s policy of shunning Thailand did anything to improve the human rights situation there. Similarly, it’s hard to see how Trump’s outreach will automatically lead to a new crackdown. Yes, on the margins, the U.S. bully pulpit on human rights does have an effect: it highlights the abuse in a way that is hard for the rest of the world to completely sweep under the rug. But more often than not, the effect translates to concrete policy by pushing the human rights offender into the arms of rival superpowers with fewer such scruples.
And that is precisely what Obama’s policy ensured: it sent America’s oldest Asian ally straight into the arms of China, who was happy to fill the American void with arms sales, heavy investment, and security cooperation. The Trump Administration appears to be trying to regain that lost influence. And while one can be skeptical as to whether it will work, it’s hard to argue against giving it a try, especially given the state of play in Asia these days.
Thailand is one of the eight Southeast Asian countries that hosts a North Korean embassy, and despite an overall decline in trade, it still maintains significant business ties with the regime, coming in as Pyongyang’s fourth largest import partner in 2015. The State Department has also accused Bangkok of being a regional hub for North Korean companies—some operating openly, others disguised by front organizations—which it has been actively urging Thailand to shut down. That was the message delivered by Rex Tillerson when he visited Bangkok in August, and it was surely a focus of private talks this week as Trump cranks up the pressure on Pyongyang.
In other words, Trump is not just embracing the Thais unreservedly; he wants action on North Korea, and he figures he can get it more easily as a trusted ally rather than as a hectoring outsider. There are plenty of pressure points that Trump could exploit if Bangkok fails to deliver, including secondary sanctions on Thai banks. As the case of Egypt recently showed, Trump has proven that he is not above halting aid to allies who facilitate illicit trade with Pyongyang.
President Trump, of course, is not without his own idées fixes. The President’s obsession with trade deficits has undermined his strategy elsewhere in Asia, most notably in South Korea, where Washington is pushing for a tough renegotiation of the FORUS agreement even as it tries to reassure Seoul about the North Korean threat. Thailand, too, runs a trade surplus with the United States, so it’s conceivable that this could become a bone of contention going forward. Trump’s gentle tone on Monday, however, suggests that certain priorities have been set in this case—at least for now.
Overall, this is an instance where the Administration’s preference for pragmatism over preaching serves it well. In Asia, the stakes are so high that we need to work with the partners we have, not the partners we necessarily want.