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‘Thaksinisation’ strains Thai-US relations

The Nation, Bangkok

REGIONAL PERSPECTIVE: ‘Thaksinisation’ strains Thai-US relations

By Kavi Chongkittavorn

23 January 2006

When Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra went to Washington DC last September to meet President George W Bush, they agreed that the Thai-US free-trade agreement (FTA) would be completed by this June. At a subsequent meeting with Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, he also asked for US assistance in southern Thailand. Obviously there was a clear link between the trade and defence policies of the two countries.

With the FTA deadlock in Chiang Mai and the resignation of veteran diplomat Nitya Pibulsonggram last week, it has become clear that Thai-US ties are not what they once were. New and unpredictable factors have permeated the relationship. For instance, the protest movements that have their sights set on stopping the trade talks as they do not trust Thaksin would protect the Thai national interest. Moreover, if the anti-Thaksin campaign continues to grow, it will further erode his mandate.

Thai-US FTA negotiations have been going on for 18 months with little progress. The prospect of the deal being wrapped up by June is highly unlikely. The current politicking going on in Thaksin’s mind and within the trade negotiation teams have hampered the whole negotiating process. Nitya’s departure came at a time when Thaksin and Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak wanted to wrest control from the Foreign Ministry to expedite the talks. The former Thai chief negotiator had been a lame duck from the first day because he had no mandate whatsoever. As a retired diplmat, he has no political base and was not linked to the Thai Rak Thai Pary. Worse, Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai, who chose him, is no loger heading the Foreign Ministry. In contrast, Vice Commerce Minister Uttama Savanayana, who heads the new negotiating team, is Somkid’s lieutenant and has all the right connections.

The absence of a common position on the Thai side prior to Chiang Mai indicated his weakness and the lack of coordination among various Thai committees. The US informed the Thai government prior to the negotiations in 2004 that the FTA would be comprehensive, including the financial and service sectors, environmental cooperation and labour standards. In the Chiang Mai round, Thailand still failed to forge a common stance on these issues.

The US government has already stepped up pressure and informed the Thai side that talks should be ideally completed by April. Without any progress, the US investment in Thailand could be jeopardized. The national treatment for the US business contained in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation has already expired in December. Both sides hope that the FTA will replace the treaty and provide the same privileges to Americans. New investment from the US would be hard to come by at this juncture without the privileges granted in the treaty.

In addition, both Republican and Democrat lawmakers in the US, industrial lobbyists and the media are hostile to Thailand and Thaksin at the moment. The mid-term polls later this year will also complicate the issue. If the FTA is completed on time, the Congress will have to vote on it before the Trade Promotion Authority of the US president expires in the middle of next year.

Thaksin has his own serious problems and his credibility is at stake. In 2003 he called for the launching of FTA negotiations with the US after he demonstrated tangible increased cooperation with the US on the war in Iraq and the global war on terrorism. He dispatched Thai troops to take part in the peacekeeping and rehabilitation of Iraq, and in August 2003 Hambali, al-Qaeda’s top Southeast Asian terrorist, was arrested in Thailand.

It is an open secret that the US Congress has been unhappy with Thaksin’s dictatorial tendency. When the proposal to begin FTA talks with Thailand reached Congress, it was passed by a margin of just one vote. Since then, Thaksin’s reputation has dropped to an all time low in the eyes of US lawmakers and civil-society organisations. The American media continue to attack Thaksin as a strongman who disregards human rights and democracy. Thailand’s blind support for Burma has attracted the condemnation and wrath of key US lawmakers.

Therefore, Washington was flabbergasted when Thaksin appealed for US assistance in its southern provinces last September. Previously, the prime minister had called the conflict an internal matter, insisting that it must be dealt with domestically. So far, the US government has not decided what kind of assistance to offer.

The US government is fully aware of how sensitive an issue it would be to provide assistance in the three provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat. That explains why the US is now consulting intensely with Thailand to draw up a strategy involving non-military programmes focused on civilian-military cooperation, which has proven successful in combating terrorism in the Philippines and elsewhere.

Indeed, it is difficult to gauge Thaksin’s motive in calling for US assistance. When he met Bush, he said Thailand was reluctant to sign the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a global anti-terrorism measure, because he was concerned about the situation in the South and neighbouring countries. The Foreign Ministry recommended signing the PSI as it would enhance Thailand’s newly designated role as a major non-Nato ally and a partner in the broader war on terrorism. It would also complement the Container Security Initiative, which Thailand was a party in 2003. The CSI allows US officials to check containers in Laem Chabang to prevent terrorists from smuggling weapons into the US.

The ministry’s plan to inform US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice of its decision during her brief visit last July to Phuket was halted by Thaksin at the last minute, who said it would jeopardise the security situation in the South.

Apparently, Thaksin wants to use the PSI and FTA as a bargaining chip to attract a greater US commitment to fighting terrorism in the South if the situation there worsens. If that is the case, it would have serious ramifications on Thai-US strategic relations. Although Thailand and the US are close allies, they do not have a common strategic security blueprint. Most bilateral cooperation has been based on the Thanat-Rusk Defence Agreement of 1962, or has been single-issue oriented and ad hoc.

Unlike the US, China is currently working intimately with Thailand to draft a joint strategic action plan, which gives top priority to political, defence, security and strategic cooperation. It will be signed in late March in Bangkok during the visit of Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. Last September, Thailand and the US agreed to start drafting on the first Thai-US strategic action plan, but progress has been slow.

Thaksin is playing a dangerous game with the world’s most powerful country by mixing personal and national agendas. The FTA negotations with the US should not be rushed or be held hostage to Thaksin’s problems with the South.

 source: The Nation