Washington (AP) — Making no reference to Thailand’s military rule, President Donald Trump on Monday hailed strengthening relations with America’s oldest ally in Asia as he welcomed a junta leader who took power in a coup.
Prayuth and his wife, Naraporn Chan-ocha, were greeted at the South Portico by Trump and first lady Melania Trump as the Thai leader arrived for talks and a working lunch.
“We’ve had a long and very storied history with Thailand,” Trump said in the Oval Office alongside Prayuth, referring to a nearly two-century diplomatic relationship, which the president said has advanced since he took office in January.
“So we have a very strong relationship right now, as of this moment, and it’s getting stronger in the last nine months,” he said, stressing the importance of trade ties, which totaled $40 billion last year, with the U.S. running a $19 billion deficit. “I think we’re going to try and sell a little bit more to you now, make that a little bit better if that’s possible.”
Prayuth said visiting Trump was a great opportunity for his government and the Thai people. He expressed optimism about strengthening cooperation, including in defense and security “to help ensure that our citizens are safeguarded from terrorism and other threats.” He also said the two nations would work closely on “regional issues of concern.”
“I am confident that with the president’s leadership we will be able to tackle all those problems,” he said.
After the coup, the United States under President Barack Obama stopped military assistance and training programs — a largely symbolic step but one that went down badly with Bangkok, a U.S. treaty ally that has moved closer to China as relations with Washington have strained. Under Trump, the U.S. has looked to resume high-level ties and authorize more arms sales.
A U.S. National Security Council spokesman, who was not authorized to speak publicly on planning for the visit and requested anonymity, said the U.S. will continue to urge Thailand to return to participatory democracy and restore civil liberties. He declined to say whether those points would be raised by Trump, but said the president could discuss how to strengthen U.S.-Thai relations.
Trump has barreled through criticism about outreach to authoritarian foreign leaders as he looks to shore up America’s long-standing alliances.
Walter Lohman at the right-leaning Heritage Foundation said if Trump did raise democracy with Prayuth it would be behind the scenes, which he argued would be most effective with a country sensitive to foreign criticism.
“We need to be concerned about human rights and democracy, but it can’t dictate our relationships with our allies,” Lohman said.