People-to-People ties form the cornerstone of US-Thai relations

The news cycle churns onward, but remember that daring cave rescue in Thailand from early July?  Cooperation on the Tham Luang Cave rescue in July marked good will shared among Thailand and many other countries. This event showed that when people of good will work together, they can accomplish unbelievable feats. The rescue also demonstrated the continued friendship between the people of the United States and Thailand.

A team of American divers worked with Thai Navy Seals in the rescue operation that freed the twelve boys and their coach from the cave. This shows that both of the countries’ peoples operate on a shared set of human values and that the people to people ties between the two countries still remain despite sometimes rocky political relations.

The relationship between the United States and Thailand is a longstanding one. Relations were established between the U.S. and Thailand in 1818 when an American ship captain was dispatched to Thailand bearing a letter from President James Monroe. The relationship developed further when the U.S. and Thailand signed the Treaty of Amity and Commerce in 1833, which established trade relations between the two countries. This made Thailand the first Asian country to sign a treaty with the United States.

In the 20th Century the relationship between the U.S. and Thailand continued to grow. During the Cold War, Thailand was a key ally for the United States. Many Thai soldiers fought alongside American troops in the Korea War and the Vietnam War.  U.S. Thai relations continued to grow in the 2000’s as well. During this period the United States designated Thailand a non-NATO ally and Thailand remains a key economic and security ally to the U.S. in the region.

In 2014, U.S.- Thailand relations cooled because of the coup that toppled the civilian government of Yingluck Shinawatra and installed General Prayuth Chan-o-cha as Prime Minister. The United States reduced its ties to Thailand, which included cutting military aid and suspending high level engagements with the Thai government. The U.S. also called for the return of elected civilian government in Thailand.  Despite these cooler relations, the people to people ties between the two countries remained strong.

People to people exchanges have always been the cornerstone of the U.S.-Thai relationship. These exchanges include study abroad programs, work programs and professional fellowship programs such as the Fulbright Scholar Program and the Young Southeast Asian Leadership Initiative (YSEALI) program, a program started in 2013. In the YSEALI program, young leaders from Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia take part in leadership-building programs in the U.S. to promote cross-border cooperation to solve regional and global challenges. Some YSEALI fellows go on to hold influential government positions. In neighboring Malaysia, Yeo Bee Yin, a YSEALI Alumna, was recently named the Energy, Green Technology, Science, Climate Change and Environment Minister.

While the people to people ties remain between the U.S. and Thailand, some aspects of these ties have weakened over the past few years. One area is Thai students studying abroad in the U.S.. Thai students come to the United States to study because it helps them develop intercultural skills, which are essential assets to have in an increasingly globalized world. Despite this, the number of Thai students studying in the United States has decreased over the past few years to 6893 students in 2016 from 7341 in 2014. (Having trouble finding data prior to 2014). In the 2015-2016 academic year, 2093 American students studied abroad in Thailand. These ties are important to maintain because they help foster mutual understanding between the two countries.

The United States has an important economic relationship with Thailand. In 2017, two-way trade in goods and services between the U.S. and Thailand totaled $42 billion, with $31.2 billion in Thai exports to the U.S. and $10.8 billion in U.S. exports to Thailand. In 2015, US FDI stock in Thailand was $11.3 billion, while Thai FDI stock in the U.S. was $2.5 billion in the same year.

Presently some political divisions still remain between the United States and Thailand particularly the U.S. call for free elections and trade disputes between the two countries. Despite this, the people to people ties between the two countries have remained. This situation makes people to people ties between the U.S. and Thailand important to strengthen.

With stronger people to people ties between the U.S. and Thailand, a shared set of human ideals can sustain the relationship between both countries can help smooth any rough patches in the bilateral relationship and quickly identify strategic opportunities when relations warm again.

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