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Bush to Discuss Terror War, Trade With Thai Leaders During Bangkok Visit - 2003-10-16

Thai-U.S. relations have been given a boost since the government in Bangkok became one of America's staunchest allies in the war on terror, even sending troops to Iraq. With President Bush's visit to Thailand this weekend for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, Thailand is hoping in principle to get negotiations rolling on a free trade agreement.

A Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and terrorism will likely dominate Sunday's talks between Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and President Bush, as they and 19 other world leaders gather in Bangkok for the APEC summit next week. Mr. Bush is expected to use his visit here to reaffirm U.S.-Thai military and security cooperation by announcing Thailand will be designated the as a major non-NATO (North Atlantic Treat Organization) ally. Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Sihasak Phuangketkeow says Mr. Bush's visit is of paramount importance to the Thai government. "The U.S. president will be paying a state visit so that's the highest level, so we attach much importance to this visit and the U.S. is our most important partner. From our side, we consider ourselves to be the oldest treaty ally of the United States in the region," he said. Mr. Sihasak added that, when Prime Minister Thaksin went to the United States earlier this year, he laid the groundwork for further cooperation in several key economic areas.

"It laid the basis for our cooperation in many areas, especially in terms of our economic partnership," he said. "We want to advance our partnership even further, especially from the Thai side. We hope that we could, in principle, launch the negotiations on the free trade area between the United States and Thailand." Mr. Thaksin, a former communications tycoon, is keen to make Thailand the centerpiece for regional free-trade arrangements, pursuing formal agreements with the United States, Australia, Japan, China and India. Analysts say Thailand hopes the United States will be more willing to pursue free trade because of Thailand's staunch support for the U.S.-led war on terror. Thailand has sent nearly 500 soldiers, most of them engineers, to Iraq, and recently captured the alleged leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, the Southeast Asian arm of the al-Qaida terrorist network - turning him over to U.S. officials. Bilateral economic cooperation has not always been smooth. "The whole of the long history, since '45 up to even the end of the Cold War, it's a positive aspect in the two countries' relations," said Professor Pranee Thiparat of Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "But since the end of the Cold War, that started the whole issue of conflicting interests between the two countries, and mainly economic issues." During the Asian economic crisis in 1997, Thailand perceived the United States as having failed to come to its aid when it needed a currency bailout.

Economic cooperation has also caused Mr. Thaksin some domestic political problems, having been accused by the opposition of bowing to U.S. pressure on policy issues. Thapchai Yong, executive editor of the English newspaper The Nation, says many Thais share this view. "Of course there are critics who are concerned that from now on Thailand will be under even greater influence of the Americans... they are against what they see as Thailand acting under pressure from the Americans, or Thailand trying to hard to appease the Americans," he said.

But dissent is not likely to appear on Bangkok's streets during APEC summit because Mr. Thaksin has barred protests by local groups and non-governmental organizations and stopped certain activists from entering the country.