Nov 18, 2012

Thailand - Boosting strategic alliance high on Obama's agenda

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United States President Barack Obama will land in Bangkok today to firm up his country's strategic alliance with Thailand, seeking support for a greater presence and role for Washington in the Asia-Pacific.

Last week, US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta signed with Thai Defence Minister Sukampol Suwannathat the "2012 Joint Vision Statement for the Thai-US Defence Alliance: A 21st Century Security Partnership" to renew the half-a-century-old alliance established during the Cold War era.

The international environment has changed since the end of the Cold War. Thailand obtained the status of a major non-Nato ally in 2004 to make sure that the US would not be isolated when it wanted to return to this region.

The new vision addresses a range of challenges to the existing security arrangements in the region, including natural and man-made disasters, transnational threats, contribution to global peacekeeping and maritime security issues.

The vision does not see new emerging powerhouse China as a threat.

International observers, diplomats and academics regard Beijing as a challenge to the US in the region and around the globe. The two countries could have cooperation as well as conflict, with wide implications for countries in the region.

Obama, since his previous term in office, has made it clear that he wanted to see a greater US presence in the Asia-Pacific to have some stake in the dynamic region. The vision for a 21st-century security partnership announced ahead of his arrival has already secured the US position with Thai support.

The US leader, in talks with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra during the visit, will also explore the economic dimensions of the partnership.

Yingluck will today announce her government's intention to join negotiations of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a regional free-trade scheme.

The announcement does not mean Thailand automatically opens its market or has free access to the TPP's members, including the US, as widely feared by local civic groups, a minister said.

Academics and non-government organisations expressed their grave concern that joining the TPP was equivalent to becoming an American colony, as the Thai economy would be dominated by the US.

Foreign Minister Surapong Towichukchaikul said earlier that joining the TPP was a long process. The government would only be telling the US that Thailand is willing to join, he said. The intention would be inserted in a joint statement which Yingluck and Obama would issue today.

The government will definitely bring the proposal to join the TPP to Parliament for approval and open it for public hearings in accordance with Article 190 of the Constitution. Thailand also needed to negotiate with 11 other parties in the TPP to obtain consensus from them to join, he said.

Surapong said the government would handle the matter with care, taking national interest into account.

"I thank many academics for raising such concerns but the criticism of becoming a US colony is too shallow and narrow. We should look at the situation realistically," he said.

Vietnam and Malaysia have already joined the TPP negotiations, in 2008 and 2010 respectively.

Bilaterally, Yingluck would also announce reactivation of the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement Joint Council, a mechanism for trade and investment negotiation.

Another cooperation, which got less media attention, regards tripartite development that would boost the role of the US in this region.

Under an agreement approved by the Cabinet last week, the Thailand International Development Cooperation Agency and the US Agency for International Development would provide aid to third countries in Southeast Asia.

Supalak Ganjanakhundee

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