Treating Thailand as pariah hurts trade with U.S.

Thai soldiers stand guard in front of the Democracy Monument in Bangkok after a military coup in May that Secretary of State John Kerry condemned.
Thai soldiers stand guard in front of the Democracy Monument in Bangkok after a military coup in May that Secretary of State John Kerry condemned. Associated Press file

Does U.S. diplomacy support or hinder our trade and economic interests? It is a question that some in the business community have begun to ask.

We at the Thai American Chamber of Commerce of California have an even more pointed question: Why is State Department policy endangering political and business relationships with Thailand?

Our question should resonate with business leaders in California, home to the largest concentration of Thais and Thai Americans in the U.S. We can bridge the language and cultural hurdles for doing business in Thailand and help open doors to major economic opportunities.

Here is what is at stake. According to the East-West Center, each year California exports $14.6 billion in goods and services to members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. These exports consist primarily of computers and electronic products, machinery, food and agriculture, transportation equipment and chemicals. More than 90,057 California jobs are supported by these exports. Visitors from Southeast Asia generate $522 million to California’s economy each year, and nearly 10,000 students from ASEAN countries contribute $319 million a year.

After five years of substandard growth, the U.S. economy is in desperate need of jobs and exports. ASEAN today has a population of 600 million people, 100 million more than the European Union, and a market estimated at $600 billion. The Thai economy, in particular, is rebounding as an economic powerhouse of Southeast Asia and is now the region’s second largest economy. Furthermore, Thailand is on the verge of committing $80 billion for infrastructure projects.

Why then are California and U.S. businesses failing to exploit such economic opportunities? Why is it that Thai businesses are not joint venturing with California firms?

The problem lies with the State Department. It is treating Thailand, America’s oldest and most enduring Asian ally, as a pariah nation.

The State Department’s “Trafficking in Persons” report has condemned Thailand, naming and shaming it for human rights abuses. This year, Thailand was ranked with the world’s truly bad actors: the Central African Republic, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Uzbekistan, Yemen, Venezuela and Zimbabwe. No one who has been to these countries would ever think of lumping Thailand with them.

How is the U.S. national interest served by humiliating an old ally in this way? Does Secretary of State John Kerry really believe that Thailand is in the same league as North Korea or Zimbabwe?

In May, when a divisive elected government was toppled in the wake of large-scale unrest in Bangkok, Kerry condemned the military government that replaced it. The U.S. then imposed sanctions in the name of “democracy.” Yet last month, a nationwide survey found that 83 percent of Thais were satisfied with their government. The new government is unpopular with the State Department, but it is very popular with the Thai people.

While the State Department’s stance on Thailand is not often covered in the American media, it is headline news in Bangkok. Inevitably, Thais are contrasting U.S. hostility with China’s charm offensive and the positive approach of the Japanese and other governments. They welcome China’s and Japan’s expanding investment in Thailand. Meanwhile, the U.S. is losing out on this important market.

Not so long ago, American products were Thai favorites, and American companies and investment were at the forefront of Thailand’s economic development. Today, Chinese products and capital are dominant. The U.S. has slipped to third place, behind China and Japan, among Thailand’s bilateral trading partners.

Already, Thais’ long-standing affection and respect for the United States are on the wane. A recent survey published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that respondents in Thailand were the least convinced of any in the region that American leadership in Asia would benefit their country. Opposition to the American “pivot” to Asia was greater in Thailand than in any Asian country other than China.

In light of American official hostility to their country, who can blame the Thais for such opinions?

Diplomatic policies have economic and political consequences. Today, U.S. diplomacy is putting the goodwill of the Thai people to the test and endangering economic ties between our two countries.

We at the Thai American Chamber of Commerce of California believe there should be a “rebalancing” of American diplomacy to support improved relations with Thailand and rebuild business ties to one of the world’s most rapidly growing markets.

It’s time for the U.S. State Department to recognize economic realities. California businesses and Thai businesses can develop a truly “win-win” partnership, but not if the government in Washington continues to bad-mouth the government in Bangkok.

Polthep Inturart is chairman of the Thai American Chamber of Commerce of California.

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