US-Thai alliance 'remains intact'

The highest-ranking US official to visit Thailand since the army seized power last May has signalled that while the coup d'etat "challenged" their 182-year relationship, the broader US-Thai alliance remained intact.

"For the US, Thailand is a valued friend and an important ally," Mr Daniel Russel, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told an audience of diplomats, academics, students, and media at Chulalongkorn University yesterday.

"This is a country with whom we have a long standing history of broad cooperation on a range of issues. We care deeply about this relationship," he added.

Mr Russel earlier met the Thai Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, General Thanasak Patimapragorn. Ministry spokesman Sek Wannamethee told The Straits Times over the phone that "the US remains committed to Thai-US relations".

In diplomatic terms, that means "we hear each other out", according to a diplomat who was at the university talk.

Mr Russel also met two former premiers, Ms Yingluck Shinawatra and Mr Abhisit Vejjajiva.

The US-Thai relationship spanning nearly two centuries was cemented during the Cold War and the war in Indochina when the US Air Force used air bases in Thailand and Thai forces fought alongside the US in Vietnam.

In his speech, Mr Russel acknowledged "our relationship with Thailand has been challenged by the military coup that removed the democratically elected government". A political process must need to be broad, inclusive and fair for it to bring long-term stability, he said.

While Mr Sek said Ms Ying- luck's impeachment last Friday did not come up in the talks between Mr Russel and Gen Thanasak, the US official said in his speech the whole process - from her removal as prime minister to facing criminal charges for alleged corruption - gave the impression that "these steps are politically driven".

Mr Russel's Thailand stop, part of a South-east Asia tour to the Philippines, Malaysia and Cambodia, punctuates a series of visits by high-ranking Chinese officials.

With the US constrained in its relationship with Thailand, the "Thais can't stand still and say no to China", said Chulalongkorn University political science professor Panitan Wattanayagorn. "The Chinese are moving very fast."

This article was first published on January 27, 2015.
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