THAI academics have warned the government to prepare for a new relationship with the US because the Biden administration will focus more on human rights, the promotion of democracy and environmental issues.
As Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th US president on Wednesday, he declared: “We’ve learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.” Indeed, world leaders were swift to say how much they were looking forward to working with him.
His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn Phra Vajiraklaochaoyuhua and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha also sent the new president congratulatory messages on Thursday.
Just after the inauguration, Mr Biden signed 17 executive orders reversing a raft of policies of his predecessor Donald Trump. Among them, he signed orders to rejoin the Paris climate accord and end Mr Trump’s travel ban on predominantly Muslim and African countries.
The Bangkok Post reported that many observers are expecting more open and multilateralist policies but Thai academics and activists said such opportunities come with concerns.
“Improving the state of the economy that has been hit hard by the pandemic will be one of Mr Biden’s top priorities,” said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University.
“The US now has trade deficits with many countries, including Thailand, and it will try to fix that. Therefore, we might see some Thai products lose their trade benefits.
“The US could use human rights, the promotion of democracy and the environment, which are big issues in Thailand right now, to justify its actions.”
Assoc Prof Panitan said while the trade war between US and China could ease under a Biden administration, it would not go away as China still poses a threat to US economic and political hegemony.
“Thailand needs to carefully strike a balance between the two,” he said.
Assoc Prof Panitan said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Commerce and security agencies need to work closely together to expand Thai-US diplomatic, security and commercial relations.
“Thailand needs to recalibrate its policy towards the US with clearer objectives. We must unify our team when it comes to negotiations,” he said.
Asst Prof Prapee Apichatsakol, of the Department of Political Science, Srinakharinwirot University, Vice President of the American Studies Association in Thailand, agreed, saying the US might be more open to restoring close ties with its allies in Asia.
With this would come opportunities, but also conditions.
“If Mr Biden returns to policies similar to the [Barack] Obama administration, which emphasised multilateralism and preserving human rights and the environment, coming back as the leader of the world with his ‘America is back’ slogan, he might need to quickly come and put things into order,” she said.
“It’s important to set our strategy well. We have to be careful in our relations with the US. We have to adjust.
“Democracy, human rights, intellectual property and labour — they [the US] will set high standards. Can we meet them?”
FTA Watch deputy chairperson Kannikar Kijtiwatchakul said comments by Mr Biden’s team suggested priority would be given to specific issues, such as intellectual property, instead of just a general desire to join multilateral or free trade agreements.
While many believe Mr Biden will pay attention to environmental issues, Ms Kannikar said she shared the concerns of Biothai Foundation director Witoon Lianchamroon that Thomas James “Tom” Vilsack, the agriculture secretary in the Obama administration, would resume that post.
Mr Vilsack worked at that time with a policy that supported large industries and included the use of chemicals.
“Actually, we have to dig down to see things more clearly,” Ms Kannikar said.
“The Biden administration will care more about building human rights and democracy but don’t get your hopes up that it will put pressure on the elite in Thailand [on those issues]. Don’t expect too much. At the end of the day, whether it be the US or the EU, every country does what’s in its best interests.”
Top:Thai flag flying at a Phuket beach. Photo: Phuket@photographer.net (CC BY 2.0)