U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has made a short visit to Thailand for talks on trade and regional security matters, including discussions on pressuring North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs.
Following his visit to a regional security forum in the Philippines, Tillerson, the highest ranking U.S. official to visit Thailand since a 2014 coup, arrived in Bangkok Tuesday to meet with Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai.
In a statement to VOA, a U.S. Embassy spokesperson said, “The Secretary discussed the broad range of U.S.-Thai cooperation on regional security, trade and investment, and other areas, including through regional forums like ASEAN. He also raised regional and global issues, including the security threat posed by DPRK [North Korea], as well as developments in the South China Sea."
In addition to seeking support for a U.S. policy designed to isolate North Korea for violating United Nations sanctions over its nuclear and missile programs, Tillerson discussed trade issues with his hosts.
Thailand had the 11th highest trade surplus with the U.S. at nearly $19 billion last year, placing it on President Donald Trump’s list of countries to be investigated over trade practices; however, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said the trade deficit went down in the past year, giving both sides more room to maneuver on the issue.
“This is a bargaining chip that I think the Trump administration is not going to go all the way and start punishing Thailand and Thailand has also been trying to accommodate. This is just part of the larger relationship. I think, as you can see, Thailand being more accommodating, the Trump administration will probably be more compromising. And this will mean that their whole relationship can then realign and move on,” he said.
He added the U.S.-Thai relationship hit rock bottom with the Obama administration following the 2014 coup, but that the Trump administration is engaged in a regional realignment focused on its North Korea policy.
The embassy spokesman said Tillerson “reiterated our desire, as a long-time friend and ally, to see Thailand emerge from this transition period as a strengthened democracy that respects and guarantees human rights and fundamental freedoms at home and plays a leading role in advancing regional security and prosperity.”
Activists say the Trump administration is minimizing human rights concerns in a country still run by a military government.
Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch Asia, said a return to democratic civilian rule should happen for a normalization of the bilateral relationship.
“For Thailand, if it expects to get back in business as usual with the U.S., it needs to open with lifting repression of fundamental rights and freedoms immediately,” he said.
Secretary Tillerson next traveled to Kuala Lumpur for meetings with Malaysian officials. He is expected to return to Washington Wednesday.