Deputy Prime Minister Don Pramudwinai is confident of an improved US Thai relationship after a phone conversation last Thursday with newly confirmed Secretary of State Antony Blinken. However, political scientists and US Thai experts see a challenge for the government if the Biden administration pursues a deeper human rights and democratic values agenda given the slanted perception of student-led democracy protests in Thailand.

Foreign policy and political experts on Friday saw some significance in a phone call placed by the new US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, the day before to his counterpart in Bangkok, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Don Pramudwinai, suggesting that Thailand could play a more significant role in US foreign policy plans. It comes amid rising tensions between the United States and China in the Asia Pacific. 

On Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Don Pramudwinai took a call from newly confirmed Secretary of State Antony Blinken. After the call the Thai Minister of Foreign Affairs expressed optimism for an improvement in the US Thai relationship moving forward.

The Director of the Institute of East Asian Studies at Thammasat University has heralded a phone call from the newly installed US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Thai Minister of Foreign Affairs Don Pramudwinai on Thursday last as a significant indicator that the United States intends to pursue a closer relationship with Thailand going forward.

It follows a phone call from Washington to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bangkok in which the two top diplomats discussed the relationship between the United States and its oldest ally in Asia. 

Top diplomats know each other since Mr Don’s days as Thailand’s ambassador to Washington 

It is understood that Deputy Prime Minister Don and Mr Blinken know each other as the Thai foreign minister, at one point in his career, was the kingdom’s ambassador to Washington from 2009 to 2010.

The pair exchanged messages on the social media site Twitter after the phone conference and Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, Tanee Sangrat, briefed the press.

Pair discussed strengthening US-Thai ties

On his Twitter account, on Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Don said that it was good to reconnect with the new top official at the State Department and that he had discussed ways of strengthening ties in the future.

Foreign Minister Don underlined the importance of the United States engaging with the ASEAN community in the region.

Mr Blinken talked about the strength of the US-Thai relationship and said he had an opening conversation with the Foreign Minister about enhancing prosperity, security and values in the Indo-Pacific.

Specifically discussed environmental economic, human trafficking and cybersecurity during the call

Mr Tanee described the phone call as cordial and said that the Deputy Prime Minister had used the expression that Thailand stood ‘ready to join hands’ in promoting peace and stability in the region as well as across the international community.

Specifics discussed during the phone call touched on the environmental revolution and its economic impact, cybersecurity and human trafficking, an area that US and Thai security services co-operate closely on.

Don confident of improved US-Thai relationship

The Thai Foreign Minister told his US counterpart that he was confident the Thai US relationship will improve. He extended an invitation to Mr Blinken to visit Thailand and also suggested a head to head between Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha and the new US President Joe Biden.

The exchange was discussed on Friday at a seminar hosted by Thammasat University to assess the foreign policy environment under a Biden administration.

‘The US and the Indo-Pacific in the Era of Joe Biden’ event featured academic experts such as Prapee Apichatsakol, a lecturer at Srinakharinwirot University who is also Vice President of the American Studies Association.

No soft line on China from the Biden Presidency but more interest in Thailand as a partner in the region

Ms Prapee agreed with other speakers that the new US Presidency does not signal a softer line on US Chinese relations but she did consider that it was more open to multilateral cooperation, an approach which would benefit Thailand.

She saw the US focusing more on building and strengthening Indo-Pacific alliances as a bulwark against an expansionist China.

‘Biden would want to reverse Trump’s unilateralist policies that antagonised allies and have more understanding or friendly relations with supportive countries. But this doesn’t mean the US under Mr Biden won’t use trade pressure to punish countries which challenged its demands,’ she explained.

Concern about a possible slanted focus on human rights and democratic values in Thailand

Of concern for Thailand and authorities here may be a push by Washington on human rights and democratic values which may throw the ongoing student-led political protests into the spotlight.

An attempt by Democratic Party Senators in the US Capitol last December, involving Thai born United States Senator Tammy Duckworth, to have a resolution passed by the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee censuring Thailand’s handling of the protests and accusing it of using a heavy hand against the recent student-led protests will not have gone down well in Bangkok.

Perception of Thai protests in the United States

In December, the 64-year-old senior US Senate member from New Jersey, Senator Bob Menendez gave some idea of how the protests are seen stateside.

‘At a time when democracy is under assault from so many quarters, it is critical that the United States Senate stands with the democracy movement in Thailand,’ he said. ‘Thailand’s reformers are not seeking a revolution. They are simply yearning for democratic changes to their country’s political system, for freedom of speech and assembly, and for Thailand to be a part of the community of democratic nations.’

The motion and the comments by US Democratic Party Senators including Senator Duckworth shows the slanted perception of the protests in Thailand which are seen through the prism of civil rights and social injustice since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th last.

Foreign policy experts see a clear indication that the kingdom plays a key part in future US plans 

The forum at Thammasat University also heard from Sitthiphon Kruarattikan who is the Director of the university’s Institute of East Asian Studies.

He saw the United States as ready to confront Chinese expansion in the Asia Pacific observing that this had been made clear even in the opening days of the new administration.

He also thought the call from Secretary of State Blinken was a clear sign that the United States sees Thailand as a significant player in its plans. 

A former Director-general of the American and South Pacific Affairs Department, Songsak Saicheua, highlighted the balanced situation as both the United States and China are the kingdom’s top trading partners.

He saw a continuation of Thailand’s traditional policy of balancing its relationship with leading powers in the region in a multilateral diplomatic approach.

Or perhaps, to put it in the words of Deputy Prime Minister Don Pramudwinai, ‘ready to join hands’.

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