Institute of Security and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University
January 26, 2015
Right now, I’m in the middle of a trip across Southeast Asia that also includes stops in the Philippines, Malaysia and Cambodia.
I’m here for the same reason that President Obama came to Asia twice last year; the same reason that American students and business people are flocking to the region, the reason our merchant ships and Navy call on your ports. The United States is a resident Asia-Pacific nation.
America’s prosperity and security are closely linked with Asia’s. Our communities are linked by travel, trade, and family ties. And our fates are linked by shared global challenges, from climate change to pandemic disease to violent extremism.
No single nation can solve these problems alone, so first, I’ll talk about the regional architecture that the U.S. and our allies and partners have built to meet them. Then I’ll focus in on U.S. relations with Thailand and the path forward.
For decades, the U.S. has worked with Asia-Pacific allies, and even more since the end of the Cold War, with partners like members of ASEAN to advance security, prosperity, and democracy throughout the region.
Together, we’ve built a regional architecture and institutions to strengthen rule of law. This architecture has helped keep the peace in the region, and many nations have taken advantage of the space provided by peace to develop, both politically and economically.
We see this in the vibrant democracies that have risen in places as diverse and different as Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. While challenges remain in Myanmar, we have seen the historic opening up of that country after decades of isolation. And in Cambodia, the agreement between the government and the opposition last year has created an opportunity for reform and stronger democracy.
In all these places, democratic progress and economic progress have gone hand-in-hand, and we’ve often seen the success of each country inspires its neighbors.
President Obama has supported the region’s progress in many ways, such as increasing our engagement with ASEAN, a pillar of the regional order. He decided to join the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, appointed our first – and now second – resident ambassadors, and personally participates in the East Asia Summit.
The U.S. strongly supports building up that Summit as the premier forum for addressing regional political and security issues, such as the South China Sea disputes. And we support the ASEAN Economic Community set to launch this year as well.
We support and actively participate in APEC, the economic pillar of the regional architecture. It has done much to further the recovery from the global financial crisis, to empower women economically, and to ensure that growth is inclusive – that its benefits are helping people in poverty and growing the middle class across the region.
And at APEC this year, we intend to explore how we can help expand the practice of corporate social responsibility to promote more inclusive economic growth.
The oldest pillars of the regional order are the alliances between the United States and Thailand, the Philippines, Australia, Japan, and the Republic of Korea. This system of alliances and security partnerships is essential in the 21st century in many ways:
It is the backbone of cooperation in the region and around the globe. And it stands for the international rule of law when it is challenged, for instance by problematic action to unilaterally change the status quo in the South China Sea.
We work with allies regularly to make sure our forces can operate together at a moment’s notice. Our enduring 182 year relationship with Thailand is no exception – together, we have addressed humanitarian crises, responded to natural disasters, combatted maritime piracy, advanced public health, protected refugees, and collaborated on counter-terrorism and law enforcement efforts to fight threat to international security.
But our relationship with Thailand is defined by more than a number of years that we have been allies, or even by our common interests and aspirations. Our friendship, founded so long ago, has been continuously refreshed over that time – by Prince Mahidol’s [/Ma-hee-doan/] time in the U.S. studying at Harvard; by the birth of His Majesty the King in Massachusetts, and by His Majesty’s contributions to American culture.
Our broad, enduring friendship is refreshed by the thousands of Thai students who come to the U.S. every year, and the Americans who come to study and tour here. For over two centuries, Americans have lived in and contributed to Thailand in countless ways, just as the Thai have done in America.
We’ve stood as partners during WWII, partners who supported democratic ideals during conflict in Indochina, who have fought the scourge of terrorism for the past decade and more; partners who bring stability and prosperity to the people of Thailand and the region.
For over half a century, the Peace Corps and U.S. aid workers have helped with teaching and rural development. Our health care workers and scientist collaborated on research to combat malaria and HIV/AIDS. Our law enforcement officers tackle trafficking in persons, narcotics, and wildlife.
We have also enjoyed a long and mutually beneficial economic and trading relationship. The United States is Thailand’s third largest trading partner. American companies are major investors in Thailand, supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs, bringing leading technologies and high standards.
These companies show it’s not just the quantity of trade and investment that’s important, it’s the quality. Doing business with America means more training and skills development for Thai workers, and better labor and environmental standards that strengthen growth, help you escape the “middle income trap,” and improve the lives of regular people.
I want to speak about how we’re planting the seeds for the future of our relationship, today – through President Obama’s Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, or YSEALI. I understand we have some members in the audience today. Let us know where you are…
Thank you. I hope those of you not already involved will join.
YSEALI is a signature project for President Obama. As someone who was a young person in Southeast Asia for a few years himself, he feels a connection. He has hosted townhall meetings with members here in the region that Thais have attended. And we’ve brought YSEALI members to the U.S. as well.
It’s one more way we’re engaging with young leaders, and helping you engage with each other, to help build an ASEAN identity. With your participation and leadership, YSEALI is creating a cadre of young Southeast Asian leaders who work in partnership with each other and the United States to tackle what you have identified as your generation’s greatest challenges: economic development, environmental protection, education, and civic engagement. YSEALI members have impressed President Obama, and me, and all who have interacted with them.
Now, I know that this is a particularly thoughtful group. So, while I have already spoken at some length about what defines our partnership – both historically and looking forward – I also need to say a few words about the political developments here and the impact on U.S.-Thailand relations over the last year.
Unfortunately, our relationship with Thailand has been challenged and affected by the military coup that removed a democratically-elected government eight months ago.
This morning, I spoke with former Prime Minister Yingluck, former Prime Minister Abhisit, and with Foreign Minister Tanasak. I have discussed the current political situation in Thailand with all of them. All sides have spoken about the importance of reconciliation and working to achieve Thailand’s democratic future.
I understand that this is a very sensitive issue, and so I bring it up with all humility and respect for the Thai people. The United States does not take sides in Thai politics. We believe it is for the Thai people to determine the legitimacy of their political and legal processes. But we are concerned about significant restraints on freedoms since the coup, including restrictions on speech and assembly.
We are also particularly concerned that the political process does not represent all elements of Thai society. Let me repeat: we are not dictating the political path that Thailand should follow to get back to democracy, or taking sides in Thai politics. But an inclusive process promotes political reconciliation, which, in turn, is key to long-term stability. The alternative — a narrow process — risks leaving many Thai people feeling excluded from the political system.
That is why we continue to advocate for a broader, more inclusive political process that allows all sectors of society to feel represented.
Also, the perception of fairness is important. I’ll be blunt here: When an elected leader is deposed, impeached by the authorities that implemented the coup, and then targeted with criminal charges while basic democratic processes and institutions are interrupted, the international community is left with the impression that these steps could be politically driven.
That is why we hope to see a process that reinforces the confidence of the Thai people in their government and judicial institutions, and builds confidence internationally that Thailand is moving toward stable and participatory democracy.
Ending martial law throughout the country and removing restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly are important steps as part of a genuinely inclusive reform process that reflects the broad diversity of views within the country. We hope that the result of that process will be stable, democratic institutions that reflect and respond to the will of the Thai people.
The message I am bringing to the people I am meeting with today, to you, and to all Thai people is the same:
Thailand is a valued friend and ally, one with whom we have a longstanding history of broad cooperation on a range of issues important not just to our two countries but also to the region and beyond across the globe. We care deeply about this relationship and our friendship with all the people of this wonderful country.
We care deeply about Thailand’s prospects for success and wish you well.