US President Barack Obama is in Asia once again. His 10th trip takes him to Vietnam and, later this week, to Japan. The focus of the US leader is to continue his agonisingly slow “pivot” to Asia of US security policy. There is far more on the agenda than upgrading Vietnam ties. China, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the fight against the Islamic State and Myanmar’s halting progress to democracy all are being addressed.
Mr Obama landed in Hanoi late on Sunday. His visit coincided with the country’s National Assembly elections which are among the world’s most undemocratic polls. It might have greatly embarrassed the US president to be in the country while “directed” voting for pre-approved Communist Party candidates was under way. To some, this is how international diplomacy works. To others, it is hypocrisy.
Vietnam, not to mention the Philippines, is looking to Washington for both moral and military backing in the South China Sea. Beijing has recently adopted an aggressive stance over the Spratly and Paracel island groups, and effectively claims to own the entire sea and all land and undersea resources. Hanoi was openly seeking Mr Obama’s endorsement as a regime fit to buy US weapons — a privilege withheld until yesterday by Washington because of Vietnam’s massive human rights violations, but now granted despite that.
It is somewhat ironic, then, that this occurs at precisely the time Thailand has stopped being a major customer of the US defence industry. As this newspaper recently reported, the US is not on the list of nations likely to sell heavy weapons to the Thai armed forces. The government is clearly leveraging its diplomatic tilts towards Beijing and Moscow to save money on military shopping.
There are major drawbacks to such a policy, however. Price is not the major consideration in careful weapons buying. The VT4 tanks purchased from China save money over the US equivalent. But they require Thai tankers to start training from the basics again.
There is also the cost of maintenance. Overall, the cliche that holds for consumers applies equally to the military: You get what you pay for.
The Ministry of Defence must also be careful with a policy that will end up with mix-and-match problems, such as those that have long bedeviled troubled Thai Airways International, with its exotic mix of aircraft.
As Mr Obama flies across the region’s skies to Japan, the atmosphere of Thai-US bilateral ties has entered yet another chilly patch. The US leader last visited Thailand in November 2012. Then prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra politely rebuffed his strong, public urging for Thailand to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. After that, relations cooled. And in the past two years of military-run government, the official US attitude to Thailand has wavered between chilly and downright frosty.
Two US ambassadors and a charge d’affaires have become casualties of loud and decidedly undiplomatic scorn and derision from Thai nationalists, the latest targeting ambassador Glyn Davies calling for his return to Washington. Events leading up to this current patch could have been avoided by both sides.
During his visit to Vietnam, Mr Obama didn’t say a word about the country’s hugely undemocratic elections and went as far as saying there had been progress on the human rights front.
When he returns to the region in November, flying over Thailand to attend a summit meeting in Laos, he is more than likely to make further comments about democracy and human rights. By then the immediate political landscape in Thailand should become clearer. One wonders what he will say to America’s oldest friend in the region.