More than 6 weeks of advance, meticulous planning by the US, which saw an advance team of over 80 people descend on Bangkok, following the visit of US Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Kritenbrink and in anticipation of an official visit by his boss, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Thailand during his maiden trip to the region, were derailed by none other than COVID-19.
The Thai press and social media was alive with claims that the US was being deceitful and conniving. Worse still, there were also claims that it intentionally made fools out of Saranrom Palace and the Prayuth government. Opposition parties cranked up their propaganda machines, claiming that Washington is afraid that such a high level visit would legitimise the Prayuth government, in the same vein as its refusal to bestow recognition on Myanmar.
Truth be told, if Thailand’s Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai and Blinken did not care about the safety of Thai people, which could have been jeopardised by the virus amidst the spread of the Omicron variant, the bilateral discussion would have taken place. Both men decided, however, to do the right thing by Thailand and its population by containing the virus within the Blinken entourage, who had been travelling with him since the G7 meeting in Liverpool. There are reports that more than one person in Blinken’s delegation and crew tested positive.
According to a highly informed source, who asked not to be identified, after receiving the positive RT-PCR results for members of his delegation, just before taking off from the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, an American official on the plane contacted the US embassy in Bangkok to alert the Thai Foreign Ministry about the COVID-19 test results. He also said that Blinken who, at that time, was on the plane out of Kuala Lumpur heading for Thailand, would like to call Don on his mobile. The US government switchboard connected the two foreign affairs officials, according to the source, but the line quality was poor and they had to reconnect frequently.
During the conversation, Blinken expressed his regret and disappointment over the COVID-19 test results and asked if Don would still like to hold bilateral discussions at Don Muang Airport, during the refuelling stop. The two finally agreed that Blinken and his delegation getting off the plane in Bangkok would put the public at risk and would not be in the best interests of the Thai people. Blinken then invited Don to Washington, as his guest and at a time convenient for his Thai counterpart.
Two hours after that conversation, Blinken’s plane landed at Don Muang, but nobody disembarked. The Thai Disease Control Department of the Ministry of Health, so alarmed by the arrival of the plane, chose to apply the highest level of preventive measures and the plane left Don Muang immediately after refuelling.
The day after, and due to all the conspiracy spin, the source revealed that the US embassy wrote to the Thai Foreign Ministry expressing regret and reaffirming the US’ confidence in the Thai government.
Indeed, it was unfortunate that the two “great old friends” were not able to meet this time around, but the relationship between the countries has been raised to a higher plane during President Biden’s tenure. There have been numerous visits by senior officials from his administration, not only from the Department of State, but the White House and the Department of Defence, as well as other security agencies.
If the planned visit had gone ahead, Thailand could have expected Blinken to reaffirm its traditional alliance commitments and look forward to more cooperation in non-traditional areas in the future. In fact, Blinken and Don were to sign a Memorandum of Understanding on Supply chain cooperation during Blinken’s aborted visit.
As Thailand is recovering from the pandemic and has set out a new direction for national development, it is imperative that Thailand taps into the new US economic policies, which place more emphasis on investment in high-quality infrastructure and innovative technologies, while promoting supply and value chains among like-minded nations. President Joe Biden has announced that the US will take the APEC chair in 2023, after Thailand.
There has been speculation that Thai-US ties are backsliding, due to China’s growing influence inside the country, as well as the perception that that US is just a fair-weather friend, who imposes much more than it provides. One often cited example is Thailand’s decision to work with Huawei. Throughout the world, the US has spearheaded efforts to prevent its allies from using China’s 5G technology. Thailand, however, has aligned its future IT structural development with Huawei’s technology.
It remains to be seen how Thai-US relations will pan out in the short to medium term, but both Don and Blinken are old hands at foreign policy and have known each other since long before Blinken became the US Secretary of State. We should expect Thai-US relations to be amicable and multidimensional, based on the two countries’ shared interests.
by Kavi Chongkittavorn
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