Nov 17, 2012

Thailand - Wen eclipsed by Obama visit

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The Thai government seems to be placing greater importance on the visit of US President Barack Obama than that of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, prompting observers to suggest there is an imbalance in the Kingdom's engagement with the two rival superpowers.

The Cabinet has decided to commit to joining a range of Washington-sponsored schemes to support the US role in the region, in both the economic and security spheres.

On the economic front, the government will announce during Obama's visit its intention to join the US-led Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) regional free-trade scheme, although the local business community, civic groups and academics have warned of its negative implications for the Thai economy.

The Commerce Ministry suggested the Cabinet include the government's intention to join the TPP in a joint statement to be issued after a meeting between Obama and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, although many agencies have complained that they have not been consulted over the sensitive issue of a free-trade agreement.

Since 2005, the US has expressed its desire to have Thailand and many other nations in the region join such a comprehensive free-trade agreement, but Bangkok has always declined, saying it needed time to study the plan.

The Cabinet on Monday also agreed to re-activate the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement Joint Council to champion liberalisation of trade and investment.

On the security front, Defence Minister Sukampol Suwannathat and US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta jointly announced the 2012 Vision for the Thai-US Defence Alliance in the 21st century, in which Thailand will provide its support to the US presence in the region. The Obama administration has made clear that it wants to have a greater military presence in Asia-Pacific amid increasing Chinese influence in the region.

At the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh next week, which Obama will attend, Yingluck will do what many previous Thai governments have been reluctant to do, by expressing a willingness to join the Washington-sponsored Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) to control the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Thailand delayed its decision for years to maintain comfortable relations with countries that might be considered targets of the PSI.

The visit of Chinese Premier Wen will begin only a day after Obama finishes his visit to Thailand. Like Obama, Wen will stay overnight in Bangkok. He will also have a bilateral meeting with Yingluck to follow up on existing cooperation, but no specific issues have been highlighted. Cooperation between the two nations on many fronts, such as the high-speed train project, water management, energy and education are in discussions, but are still far from being concluded, according to a Chinese official.

Premier Wen will attend the opening ceremony of the Chinese Cultural Centre in Bangkok and preside over the signing of some low-key bilateral agreements, such as the Agreement on Educational Cooperation and the Exchange of the Instruments of Ratification of the Treaty on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons.

However, a senior official at the Thai Foreign Ministry said it's unfair to compare the two visits as the two leaders are in different situations. Obama was just re-elected for a second term in the White House, while Wen is about to step down following the selection of a new Chinese leadership. Although Chinese Ambassador Guan Mu said the main policy and direction of relations with Thailand would not change, the Foreign Ministry official anticipated that Wen would not be in a position to commit to anything major during his visit.

Balancing act


Granted an audience with HM the King
Staying overnight in Bangkok
Visiting cultural sites
Govt to announce plans to join TPP, PSI
Announcement of 21st Century Security Partnership ahead of visit


Granted an audience with HM the King
Courtesy call on Privy Council President Gen Prem Tinsulanonda
Staying overnight in Bangkok
Opening the Chinese Cultural Centre
Witness signing of pacts on education and prisoner transfers

Supalak Ganjanakhundee

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