Tillerson in Thailand as Washington revives ties with oldest Asian ally

Posted on August 09, 2017

BANGKOK -- Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived in Thailand on Tuesday in the highest level visit by a US official since a military coup in 2014 soured relations with the United States and brought the ruling junta closer to China.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha (R) shows the way to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) during a meeting at Government House in Bangkok, Thailand on Aug. 8. -- REUTERS
Mr. Tillersonís visit follows his attendance at a regional security forum in Manila at the weekend.

One of Mr. Tillersonís top priorities has been urging Southeast Asian countries to do more to help cut funding streams for North Korea, with which he has held open the door for dialogue if it halts its recent series of missile tests.

But Thailandís own politics and human rights record will also be in focus, as Washington strengthens relations with its oldest ally in the region after they were downgraded following the coup.

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Busadee Santipitaks highlighted the importance of the visit for Thailand. She told Reuters there were ďmany issues which we will cover, including the tight relationship and friendship.Ē

US President Donald J. Trump has spoken to the leader of Thailandís military junta, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, and invited him to the White House, but no date has been set yet.

Human rights groups have voiced concern about the reestablishment of normal relations between the United States and Thailand while the junta continues to crack down on critics of the monarchy and the military.

ďIt would be a practical mistake for Tillerson to not condition positive diplomatic relations on improvements in the protection of human rights,Ē Matthew Smith, of the Fortify Rights group, told Reuters.

Thailandís military seized power in May 2014 after months of street protests with a promise to eventually restore democracy, but elections will not happen before next year and a new constitution retains a powerful political say for the army.

Since the coup, Thailand has since aligned itself more closely with Beijing. Thailand this year has approved Chinese submarines, tank and helicopter purchases worth more than $500 million as well as construction of a new rail link.

Another source of friction with the Trump administration is Thailandís trade surplus over the United States. It was the 11th largest last year at nearly $19 billion, although Thai officials expect a sharp rise in US imports to reduce it. -- Reuters