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Thai PM eyes cozier US relations during meeting with Trump

Washington pushes Bangkok for support on North Korea

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha gestures during a conference in Bangkok in June.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Thailand's junta chief Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha hopes for warmer ties with the U.S. as he meets with President Donald Trump on Monday in Washington, marking his first visit to the White House since wresting power in a 2014 military coup.

The administration of former President Barack Obama had shunned Thailand's unelected military regime, but relations may be changing as Trump increasingly reaches out to Asian nations for support over escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

Washington is ready to call on Bangkok to increase its role in regional security, and may ask for more sanctions against the rogue nation, such as shutting down North Korean businesses that are still operating in Thailand.

In a White House statement released on Sept. 26 after Prayuth's visit was officially confirmed, Trump said he "looks forward to reaffirming the relationship between the United States and a key partner and longstanding ally in Asia."

Meanwhile, junta spokesperson Werachon Sukhondhapatipak told reporters in Bangkok that the meeting will enable the two countries "to push further a strategic partnership for mutual benefits."

Trump's invitation came during a phone call in April, during which he pushed Prayuth for more cooperation on North Korea.

"[Trump] has explicitly prioritized U.S. national interests over values [concerning] democracy and human rights," Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Thitinan said the meeting may also lead to a long-awaited upgrade of Thailand's status in the U.S. Department of State's annual Trafficking in Persons Report. This could lead to opportunities for the Thai fisheries industry, which the report has condemned for using forced labor.

Prayuth led a military coup that toppled the elected government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

In the three years since taking power, the junta has suppressed freedom of speech, banned political activities and imprisoned numerous dissidents. A general election has been promised but the date keeps slipping back, with the election now scheduled for late 2018.

The Obama administration had disapproved of Thailand's military rule, slashing aid and scaling back U.S. troops participating in the annual Cobra Gold exercise, one of the largest multinational military drills in Asia Pacific, which is held in Thailand.

"Hosting Gen. Prayuth at the White House indicates clear recognition of the Thai military government, but under the assumption that Thailand will eventually return to its democratic path," Thitinan said.

Rights group decries 'propaganda victory'

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams described the visit as a "propaganda victory" for Prayuth that "will come at the expense of the people of Thailand, who will pay for it in the form of intensified repression."

Some speculate that the general could seek to stay in power after the elections now that Yingluck, who was sentenced to jail last week, has fled the country.

Although Thailand's return to democracy is apparently included in today's agenda, regional security and trade issues are likely to have higher priority. Earlier in August, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Thailand, becoming the highest-ranking U.S. official to do so since the coup. Tillerson urged Bangkok to cut funding to North Korea.

Thailand hosts a North Korean embassy and allows the rogue state to do business in the country, which was the fourth largest import destination of North Korea in 2015, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity. Bilateral trade has, however, dropped dramatically since then.

In the first seven months of this year, imports from North Korea fell nearly 80% year on year, led by a sharp drop in machinery parts. Exports, mainly rubber and rubber products, also fell by 90%.

In addition to Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs, China's adventurism in the South China Sea remains a growing concern for Washington. Trump is planning to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in November in the Philippines -- a meeting that he had initially said he would not attend.

Thailand's trade surplus with the U.S. had come under fire from Trump and is expected to be on today's agenda. The U.S. trade deficit with Thailand was the 10th largest by country in 2016.

The leaders may agree on more U.S. export deals -- a win-win for Thailand if it includes agreements to purchase more arms. The U.S. has statutory requirements that forbid its arms makers from selling military equipment to militaries that have deposed elected governments.

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