BANGKOK, Thailand -- U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's recent
appearance at a Southeast Asian foreign ministers' conference occurred
alongside his rival Chinese and Russian counterparts, with all three
trying to woo Thailand's authoritarian government which is shopping
for foreign weapons and inviting business investments.
During his August 1-3 visit, Mr. Pompeo discussed with Thai and
regional ministers the U.S.-China trade war, denuclearization of North
Korea, disputes in the South China Sea and other concerns.
He told Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai, "to maintain the sanctions
that spurred diplomacy with North Korea, to speak out against Chinese
coercion in the South China Sea, to advocate for the voluntary, safe
and dignified return of the Rohingya to their homeland [Myanmar], and
to confront Iranian aggression."
After shaking hands with Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, Mr. Pompeo
tweeted that the two men discussed "ways to advance democracy" and
Mr. Pompeo also met Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on August 1. They
expressed hopes to improve U.S.-China relations and curb North Korea's
Meanwhile the rivalry among the U.S., China and Russia for Thailand's
weaponry, territory and diplomatic support has intensified in recent
"Now Mr. Pompeo has the chance to reboot Thai-U.S. ties and to take
their relations to a new level," wrote columnist Kavi Chongkittavorn.
"Remember, it was the U.S. State Department's analysis that paralyzed
Thai-U.S. relations. It took countervailing perspectives from the
Defense Department and White House to overrule the U.S. State
Department's stereotyped thinking about Thailand," Mr. Kavi said.
On July 26, U.S. Congress received notification that the State
Department approved a possible sale to Thailand of 60 Stryker infantry
carrier vehicles with equipment and support worth $175 million, the
Defense Department's Security Cooperation Agency said.
Among its international aircraft, the Thai air force operates Lockheed
Martin Corp. F-16 fighter jets and Black Hawk helicopters.
Thailand is a Major Non-NATO U.S. ally. The U.S. military has used
Thai territory and facilities to support wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In 2014, then-armed forces chief Gen. Prayuth seized power in a
bloodless coup. Afterwards, the U.S. "invested" $460 million in four
[Thai] military bases, the Bangkok Post reported in April.
Additionally, "the U.S. government sold about $437 million of major
hardware to Thailand through foreign military sales since 2014,"
Bloomberg news reported.
Washington, Beijing and Moscow are also hoping use Thailand to
assemble weapons systems, based on Bangkok's track record as the
"Detroit of Southeast Asia" for its ability to assemble foreign cars.
Thailand's vocational and executive workers are poorly paid and mostly
unable to form labor unions and thus attractive to U.S. and
Unlike the U.S., China embraced Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha after
his putsch and tightened economic, diplomatic and military relations.
Bangkok then agreed to buy Chinese armored carriers, tanks and submarines.
In addition to regional issues, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang was
expected to discuss with Thai officials the continuation of Chinese
construction, rail, road and other projects.
Beijing also gained in importance here because of the wealth China is
willing to invest.
Chinese are Thailand's priority tourists. Nearly 10 million Chinese
arrived in Thailand during 2018, out of 38 million people from all
Chinese bought nearly half of all Thai condos sold during 2018,
according to the Bank of Thailand.
Most Chinese purchases were investments for resale or rental,
especially in Bangkok. One Thai economist said some Chinese pay for
expensive condos by transferring funds through bitcoin crypto
currency, to avoid China's financial regulations.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meanwhile was greeted with
enthusiasm on July 30 by Prime Minister Prayuth. Russian President
Vladimir Putin recently met Mr. Prayuth at a Singapore conference.
"There will be more [Russian] investments in the Eastern Economic
Corridor" where Thailand offers financial incentives to multinational
corporations, Foreign Minister Don told Mr. Lavrov. "We will expedite
pending projects and agreements with Russia."
"We can work together on counter-terrorism, counter-extremism, and
counter-drug trafficking," Mr. Lavrov replied. "There are prospects"
to increase military cooperation.
Moscow-based Russian Helicopters reportedly wants a joint venture with
a Thai company in the Eastern Economic Corridor.
Among its models, Russian Helicopters is the "number one manufacturer
globally in the attack helicopters segment," its website said.
Its Mi-8/17 can be fitted with three machine guns and 1.7 tons of
armament including 57-mm unguided rockets, freefall bombs and an
"The Federation of Thai Industries hopes to find a Thai partner for
Russian Helicopters as the two governments have a cooperation
agreement framework to further develop industry and trade," FTI vice
chairman Kriangkrai Tiannukul said.
Bangkok chairs the six-day ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting 2019 which
began on July 31. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)
includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar,
Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
The U.S., China, Japan, South Korea and Russia are attending meetings
as "dialogue partners." North Korea declined to come.
After Mr. Pompeo departed Thailand on August 3, he traveled to
Australia and Micronesia.
Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco,
California, reporting news from Asia since 1978 and winner of Columbia
University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He co-authored three
non-fiction books about Thailand, including "'Hello My Big Big Honey!'
Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews," "60
Stories of Royal Lineage," and "Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News
Since 1946." Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the chapter "Ceremonies
and Regalia" in a book published in English and Thai titled, "King
Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in
Perspective." Mr. Ehrlich's newest book, "Sheila Carfenders, Doctor
Mask & President Akimbo" portrays a 22-year-old American female mental
patient who is abducted to Asia by her abusive San Francisco
His online sites are: