The United States-Thailand Alliance

Reinvigorating the Partnership


NBR and the Thai Studies Program at Georgetown University hosted a private workshop on April 28, 2010, at Georgetown University to examine the United States-Thailand Alliance.

Workshop participants from U.S. government foreign policy agencies, think tanks, universities, business, and non-governmental organizations gathered to examine American perspectives on the current state of the alliance, changing regional dynamics and their impact on the relationship, and other issues that should be considered moving forward. The workshop was the first in a multi-year, bilateral effort led by NBR.

Read the full workshop report: The United States-Thailand Alliance: Reinvigorating the Partnership

Summary of Workshop Findings

A constant theme throughout the discussion was that of drift in the current U.S.-Thailand alliance. Without a strong strategic footing, it is difficult to manage a widening array of cooperative initiatives and agreements. Participants identified a number of issues that merit examination.

It is significant that many of these issues are conceptual in nature. This suggests that an early and important step in strengthening the U.S.-Thailand alliance would be bilateral dialogue, not only between the two security communities but along a broader spectrum of government and societal representatives from both countries.

1. Finding a rationale for an alliance over a less formal security relationship

One participant questioned whether an alliance was necessary, and wondered if it was possible to disaggregate cooperation from the actual alliance structure and what would be the potential impact of that alternate reality. While several participants agreed that cooperation would likely continue, the alliance gives the legal and relational foundation to ensure access to key facilities, intelligence sharing in counterterrorism, and to bolster responses to a host of other non-traditional security threats. Others believed that the alliance is also a definitive legal point of engagement and U.S. commitment in mainland Southeast Asia.

2. Determining an appropriate profile for the U.S.-Thailand alliance

A dichotomy emerged in the discussion in this regard. Some participants maintained that the alliance lacks strategic coherence at this point, with a weakened sense of purpose as a result. Some felt that the quiet nature of the current U.S.-Thailand alliance obscures its role in U.S. regional engagement and even U.S. global military operations. Over the last several years, the United States military has used Thailand’s facilities as a vital transportation link, transiting thousands of military flights per year through Thailand’s bases. Thai air space is also critical in transiting from the Pacific Ocean into the Indian Ocean for military capabilities. However, several conference participants viewed this low profile as beneficial, in that it provides maximum flexibility and freedom of cooperation.

3. Defining Thai national interests in the alliance

Although the benefits of the alliance to the United States are fairly obvious, ascertaining Thai national interests proved a more difficult challenge. However, several participants speculated on some possible benefits. Geostrategically, the alliance communicates continued U.S. involvement in both the region, and specifically in Thailand. This guards against hegemony of any one power, particularly in critical sea lanes. More broadly, in a changing security environment the alliance helps ensure that strategic issues are viewed as international concerns, rather than just regional ones. The alliance also serves as a support for continued U.S. economic engagement with Southeast Asia. Thai markets continue to attract overseas investment, but the reality of China’s growing economic strength paradoxically could make the alliance more important in stimulating U.S.-Thailand trade than it has is in the past.

In military-to-military relations, Thailand continues to receive the benefits of military training through IMET, Cobra Gold, and smaller training exchanges. The Thai military still utilizes U.S. military doctrine and structures as the foundation of their military organization. While some participants noted the problems with this arrangement for Thai forces conducting counterinsurgency operations in the South, the Thais still show a desire for acquiring U.S. lessons learned in counterinsurgency warfare.

On the subject of weapons acquisitions, participants disagreed over the implications and origins of the overall trend of Thailand’s diversification in arms purchases. Some participants saw this as symptomatic of the strategic drift in U.S.-Thai relations, while others viewed it as aligning specific military needs to affordable capabilities. While there was general agreement over a loss of interoperability, the impact of this loss is generally limited without a specific conventional threat in Southeast Asia.

4. Holding fast during a tumultuous domestic time in Thailand.

While the conference did not focus on the current domestic political challenges in Thailand, numerous participants discussed the paramount importance of the United States remaining steady in the bilateral relationship with Thailand. This steadiness requires a long-term commitment to Thailand as it perseveres, not only through current domestic turmoil, but also through future transitions in its domestic institutions. At the same time, participants pointed out that this commitment must be faithful to the mandates of U.S. law with respect to peaceful transitions of power.

5. Reinvigorating U.S. soft power influence

This theme emerged as a significant factor in balancing the overall influence and bilateral relationship with Thailand. If security concerns predominate, then the United States will only have impact on a narrow patch of the Thai population. With shifts in civil-military relations in Thailand in the past two decades, the United States must reinvigorate its capacity to engage the Thai community broadly and substantially on the purpose and value of the alliance. While nostalgia makes a poor foundation for a future relationship, history has shown that Peace Corps volunteers, English language initiatives, educational support, and cultural centers have all had a positive impact on the U.S. image in
Thailand.

6. Expanding the definition of security within the alliance

If Thailand – and Southeast Asia in general – have received less attention from the United States in recent decades, it is partly because the region is a victim of its own success. Notwithstanding the threat posed by radical Islamist groups in Southeast Asia, it is not difficult to comprehend why Northeast Asia and U.S. alliances in that region receive greater attention.

However, Southeast Asia does have a substantial array of nontraditional security threats. In that regard, Thailand’s geostrategic position and the long history of U.S.-Thai cooperation could be considerable assets in addressing these threats. One participant maintained that Thailand would be a natural base for a regional center to address many of these threats, and as a training site for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Beyond the surface value of this proposition, it would bolster Thailand’s status as a regional leader on critical security issues, while demonstrating the benefits of U.S. involvement in capacity building for the region.

7. Placing the U.S.-Thailand alliance in the context of rising power dynamics in Asia

Although Thai diplomatic history is one of balancing external powers, some U.S. policymakers are inclined to view China and the United States as competitors in Southeast Asia. Maintaining and strengthening the U.S.-Thailand alliance will require considering the growing number of challenges and opportunities presented by China’s growing regional and global power.


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