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US poll has huge implications for Thailand

 US poll has huge implications for Thailand

Published: 2/11/2012 at 12:00 AM

Newspaper section: News

Few spectacles capture world attention like the United States presidential election.

Whether it is out of love or hate, or mostly somewhere in between, the nations and peoples around the globe are tuning in to see who will occupy the White House come January. For Thailand, beyond the sheer excitement and media frenzy, the contest between incumbent President Barack Obama of the Democratic Party and his Republican Party challenger is portentous. At issue are who is likely to win and the implications for Thailand and what becomes of the Thai-US treaty alliance after the presidential dust settles.

Interestingly, the same Thai public that recently queried and suspected plans for a joint climate study with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the development of U-tapao airbase into a US-led regional centre for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief is following the US presidential race extensively. The Thai media are all over local pundits and churn out all kinds of conjecture regarding the possible outcome. Local bookies have adjusted odds up and down based on the latest polling information from the US. The Thai public's thrill over a national contest far away with the widest global repercussions will soon subside but the final outcome will not be for some time.

Whether it ends up being Mr Obama again or Mitt Romney matters in degrees to Thailand and East Asia. In view of Mr Obama's personal background and policy preferences, Thailand and all of Asia have seen the most Asian president of the US that they are going to see. In one proclamation, Mr Obama called himself the US's first "Pacific" president. His foreign policy team, ably led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her assistant Kurt Campbell, has reengaged with East Asia on an unprecedented scale. Treaty alliances with Australia, the Philippines, South Korea, and Japan have been reaffirmed and reinforced. As an out-of-sync ally, Thailand has hedged increasingly towards Beijing but the military-to-military foundation of Thai-US ties remains the bedrock that supports the bilateral alliance.

The Obama administration has been relatively multilateral and has treated Southeast Asia as a region rather than a confluence of bilateral allies and partners as in the traditional model of hub-and-spokes. Under Mr Obama's watch, Washington signed up to Asean's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, appointed an Asean ambassador, and joined the East Asia Summit. It has played a significant role in Myanmar's tentative democratic transition, and has been cautious and measured in dealings with China, despite exhortations to the contrary from certain Asean members. All around China in Asia, Mr Obama's team has cemented alliances and struck strategic partnerships, yet without making Beijing feel isolated and encircled. For Asia's future peace and stability, the Washington-Beijing relationship has to be sound and workable. Mr Obama's performance and efforts have put the pieces in place for this to happen. There is little doubt that Thailand and East Asia more broadly have an incentive to see more continuity and predictability from a flawed but engaged and nuanced multilateralist incumbency in Washington.

However, a Romney presidency would not be a matter of black and white. Mr Romney may bring much more continuity than anticipated. The "pivot" and "rebalance" from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the Middle East to Asia are likely to be maintained but perhaps scaled down a degree. As he is unseasoned in foreign affairs, Mr Romney is predictably surrounded by conservative foreign policy wonks, some of them holdovers from the detested era of former president George W Bush. To date, Mr Romney has overwhelmingly focused on the Middle East and North Africa. The unfinished agenda of an elusive and misguided democratic transformation of the Middle East may get a second chance under Mr Romney. Ending Iran's nuclear programme may be one of his top priorities. To the extent Asia has figured in the Romney campaigns, it has been all about China and its alleged currency manipulation and intellectual property infringements, rhetoric Mr Romney downplayed by the third presidential debate. Either way, a Romney presidency is likely to be less multilateral and more go-it-alone, more preoccupied with the Middle East, with correspondingly less weight on the nuances and subtleties of diplomatic engagements in the Asian sphere.

The Obama-Romney race is anybody's guess by all accounts. The polls are fluid and divided. The first presidential debate provided momentum for Mr Romney that may well last to polling day. He came across in the debates as likeable, if fuzzy on logic and hazy on substance and issues. On the contrary, Mr Obama commanded and articulated the numbers, figures and policy results well but he may not come across as likeable. Certainly, Mr Obama is no longer running on the "hope" and vision marking his presidential debut that captivated not just Americans but worldwide audiences. The president is now just hanging on to all levers of incumbency in the hope that he has enough "gas in the tank" to cross the finish line first. Americans are understandably concerned about high unemployment and economic recovery and about a wide assortment of what they call bread-and-butter issues.

The last four years have been tough on Americans but whether they think the eight years under Mr Bush were worse and whether the next four years under Mr Obama can only be better will determine if Mr Romney ends up as commander-in-chief and who Thai leaders will have to deal with as they recalibrate the Thai-US alliance in the newly emerging regional mix.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

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