Thai Prime Minister attends ASEAN summit in U.S.

S__13737988Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha arrived in California this week for a summit with President Barack Obama and the other nine heads of state of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The two-day summit is the first between the two sides that will be held on American soil, and comes shortly after the launch of the ASEAN Economic Community free trade and investment area at the end of last year.

Prime Minister Prayut will use the February 15-16 meeting at Rancho Mirage to advocate for a greater emphasis on sustainable development, and also push for closer cooperation on a range of security issues. Despite differing views on the pace of political reform, the U.S. still sees Thailand as a hub for the region and as having an important role in fostering collaboration between America and ASEAN, said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Sek Wannamethee. Thailand is the oldest treaty ally of the United States in Asia.

U.S. officials see ASEAN as a crucial player in President Obama’s strategy of pivoting America’s foreign policy more towards Asia and the Pacific. With the People’s Republic of China working to expand its influence, ASEAN is no longer considered a foreign policy backwater, and a strong and independent Southeast Asia is desirable in order to achieve balance, peace and security, and economic prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region.

Some activist groups have called on President Obama to address human rights issues in several of the ASEAN countries. But W. Patrick Murphy, charge d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Bangkok, said the President would be focusing on the collective good and not singling out any members over bilateral issues.

“The intention of the meeting is engagement between the President and his 10 counterparts and the ASEAN Secretary General. When leaders arrive, they will be greeted by President Obama in Sunnylands, and of course there will be a lot of interaction during the two-day meeting,” he said.

The importance of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), with its population of 625 million spread across a diverse mix of advanced and developing economies, has also been rising in relevance to America’s economic fortunes. The AEC is the fourth largest export market for the United States, and U.S. companies form the largest group of foreign direct investors in the region.

Security matters will be high on the summit agenda. The rise of Islamic State is a mutual concern because of radical jihadists moving between the Middle East and several countries in ASEAN, as evidenced by the recent attacks in Jakarta, Indonesia. Maritime security is also a major issue. Some ASEAN countries have ocean territorial disputes with China, and freedom of the seas is a bedrock component of U.S. foreign policy. Transnational crimes, such as human, wildlife and drug trafficking will also be addressed.

Thailand has a long history of close cooperation and strong partnership with the U.S. on many issues, but especially on security. Thai troops fought alongside U.S. forces in the conflicts in Korea and Viet Nam, and Thailand has been a strong regional ally in efforts to defeat terrorism.

As the liaison country for ASEAN with China, Thailand’s efforts in working to maintain regional peace and security cannot be underestimated. Thailand also plays a leading role in the regional battle against wildlife trafficking, collaborating with the U.S. to spearhead the ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network. On human trafficking, Thailand stepped to the forefront in calling for and organizing two regional conferences on irregular migration, specifically dealing with the plight of the Rohingya ethnic group and others who have fallen prey to traffickers in large numbers.