Security experts said this week that Thailand would not lose its neutrality after the decision to sign a new defence agreement with the United States during the upcoming visit of President Barack Obama, but the country must be careful not to be seen as moving too close to the American orbit.
"We need to balance our act because in recent years Thailand has been moving close to the Chinese sphere of influence, partly because the US was too engaged elsewhere, namely with the global war on terrorism and the Middle East," said Chulalongkorn University's security expert, Professor Panitan Wattanayagorn.
There had been past efforts to engage with the US, such as when it dispatched troops to Afghanistan and Iraq to take part in the US-led multinational offensives. These initiatives came out of the Thai government's budget, not that of the US.
Thailand's involvement was limited but there were repercussions, said Panitan, pointing to sentiment in the Muslim-majority southern provinces.
The 2012 Joint Vision Statement for the Thai-US Defence Alliance is expected to be signed by the two leaders during Obama's visit, and regional security and enhancing Thai status in the US-led network alliance is expected to be high on the agenda.
Key conditions in the 2012 Joint Vision Statement for the Thai-US Defence Alliance are aimed at further strengthening the partnership in Southeast Asia, building up support for sustainable regional stability, preparedness for operational readiness in bilateral and unilateral cooperation, and development of relations, coordination and cooperation at all levels.
The alliance is part of a bigger Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) launched nine years ago by then US president George W Bush to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Procrastination on Thailand's part was prompted by concern among authorities that "the PSI framework would violate the country's sovereignty and local laws", said Kavi Chongkittavorn, an independent security analyst.
"And although Thailand's decision comes a bit too late, nonetheless it still has symbolic value," Kavi said.
China is expected to be more assertive over where Thailand stands as the country moves to recalibrate its strategic interest.
Panitan said this does not have to be a zero-sum game as Thailand can set conditions and limitations as to what the US and China can do on Thai soil.
But the absence of a strong and unified foreign policy makes the country vulnerable to China's and America's growing assertiveness, experts have warned.
"We are vulnerable because we don't have a strong team with a unified position to push Thailand's strategic interest at the international level," Panitan said.
Analysts said the rise of China has forced the US to rethink its security approach in the Asia-Pacific region.
So far, American troops have established a strong presence in Darwin, Australia, and currently the US is negotiating with Vietnam and Singapore about elevating their respective bilateral cooperation.
Panitan believes Cambodia could be a candidate for such an arrangement with the US, but it may not come in the form of a military-to-military context, but more as non-traditional security cooperation, possibly in the area of counter narcotics and environmental issues.
A total of 101 countries have joined the PSI's international effort to promote the nonproliferation of WMD.
Deputy Government Spokesman Pakdiharn Himathongkham told reporters after the Tuesday weekly Cabinet meeting that Obama's visit demonstrated that Thailand and the US were partners for security in the Asia-Pacific region.
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, who is scheduled to arrive here tomorrow, is looking to boost Thai-US military cooperation beyond the bilateral cooperation that came into being during the Cold War era.
Thailand was granted the status of a major non-Nato ally at the end of 2003.
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