Thailand is known to Americans for food, culture, and as a popular tourist destination attracting over a million Americans before the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet perhaps few are aware that Thailand is the oldest treaty ally of the US in Asia, and this year both countries celebrate 190 years of diplomatic relations, one of the longest the US has with any country. On March 20, 2023 the Asia Foundation and Royal Thai Embassy in Washington, D.C. co-hosted a conference marking this occasion with distinguished guests including Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) who spoke of how she will be, “forever proud” to call herself a
Thai-American, and how the alliance provides a “sense of security” in a future
of unpredictability. The seminar provided an opportunity for both an analytical survey and a glimpse into the future of Thai-US diplomatic, economic, cultural, and security ties. This year, Thailand and the US turn the corner, and people in both nations have the opportunity to reflect on this shared past and envision the future of the alliance.
The two nations have long collaborated as amicable friends, beginning with the Treaty of Amity and Commerce in 1833. The US was one of the powers that Thailand leveraged against colonial powers. The two countries also collaborated during and after World War II. Later, military cooperation was established through defense pacts. These promises were upheld throughout the Cold War. Thailand became the domino that did not fall and escaped major regional conflicts. When terrorism emerged as a global threat, the two countries supported one another. Security cooperation continues today with many programs, including the annual Cobra Gold joint military exercise and humanitarian response drills, Hanuman Guardian, and Cope Tiger.
Exemplifying prospects for the future, on the economic side, Thailand-US trade is already stronger than ever, with over $74 billion in volume in 2022, a 23.48% increase from the year prior. Thailand is also positioning itself to be an advanced hi-tech and digital economy with reliable supply chains. It is already in the top 10 of global automotive production hubs and has one of the largest EV markets in the region. The Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC), an exclusive specialized development zone of Thailand, has attracted significant investment from the US and other investors, and it will prove to be a stellar opportunity for US corporations to strengthen their processing and distribution networks. Conversely, Thailand has invested more than $10 billion in the US, ranging from renewable energy, plastics, petrochemicals, food and beverages, software and IT services, and auto components, creating jobs for more than 60,000 Americans, across 27 states.
The alliance has provided a solid base for current and future partnerships. Last year, Thailand and the US signed two landmark documents: the Communiqué on Strategic Alliance and Partnership and the MOU on Promoting Supply Chain Resilience. Both sides are intensifying cooperation in areas including defense and weapons procurement, energy and food security, and the digital economy and related supply chains. This year and beyond is the time to translate the aspirations stipulated into concrete progress. As the US hosts the eight APEC ministerial meetings this year, both Thailand and the US should find considerable interest in also having bilateral visits or discussions to enhance cooperation after the APEC ministerial meetings, while both countries expect to hold the 2+2 Strategic Dialogue and key high-level bilateral engagements.
The alliance should also be expanded to encompass and strengthen other areas of cooperation, such as the creative economy and innovation, science and technology, telecommunications, space technology, education, particularly STEAM, and the environment, among others. The Royal Thai Embassy in Washington, D.C., has founded the Global Innovation Club to forge collaboration between startups, venture capitalists, and related entities of the two countries.
Both nations can also join forces in advancing innovation to advance sustainability. With a strong EV support policy, battery manufacturing and charging innovation, and robust domestic demand, Thailand looks forward to working with US companies to promote investment in EVs. The official launch of Tesla sales in Thailand last year received more than 7,800 bookings in one month’s time, the second-highest number in the region.
Beyond bilateral relations and cooperation, Thailand is also well-positioned to support sustainable development in the Mekong sub-region through a trilateral forum or multilateral frameworks such as the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS) and the Mekong-US Partnership (MUSP). Thailand has focused on education, health care, and agriculture in development partnerships with Mekong sub-regional neighbors and other partners, but these efforts can be further strengthened with the U.S. in areas of the latter’s strengths such as renewable energy, cyber, and food security, to name a few.
Looking beyond mainland Southeast Asia, in an increasingly uncertain world with threats of climate change and natural or man-made disasters, Thailand can leverage its alliance with the US in regional and global humanitarian assistance by providing support in times of crisis in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. Thailand has done this well, such as in peacekeeping operations and development in Timor-Leste and in tsunami response efforts in southern Thailand and across the region.
While recent global events and supply chain disruptions are emblematic of continued unsettling events and hardship that people around the world may face, Thailand and the US must, therefore, work together with friends around the globe to address any possible threats in the most efficient way. The two sides should also elevate bilateral relations and the alliance in key areas from defense to trade, investment to the digital economy, as well as people-to-people ties, while at the same time together, addressing regional and global challenges.