March 12, 1998 | Executive Summary on Asia
Thailand seeks support from the United States as it tries to recover from a serious economic crisis. The March 12, 1998, visit of Thailand's Prime Minister, Chuan Leekpai, offers the United States the opportunity to affirm its support for an important U.S. ally. In addition to their long-standing military alliance, Thailand and the United States share a concern about China's intentions in Southeast Asia and cooperate in fighting drugs. To affirm the U.S. alliance with Thailand, the Clinton Administration should:
Ask Thailand to reconsider allowing U.S. supply ships to use Thai ports. A previous request was denied in 1994. The United States should request that Thailand reconsider its decision; these supplies need to be close to U.S. servicemen in Korea and the Persian Gulf in the event hostilities flare up in either region.
Offer modest assistance to help Thailand fight drugs. Budget cuts are reducing Thailand's ability to destroy drug crops; the United States should offer a one-time assistance package to help destroy drugs that might end up on the streets of the United States.
Thailand now needs help from the United States to recover from its devastating economic crisis and to prevent future crises. The crisis began in early 1997 when the value of Thailand's currency, the baht, fell in international markets. The fall of the baht exposed serious flaws in Thailand's financial sector, its corporate laws, and in its statistical reporting. After seeing economic growth rates over 8 percent most of this decade, Thailand's economy may contract by 3 percent in 1998. The crisis has seen a 50-percent fall in the value of the baht and a collapse of Thailand's financial sector. Thailand has turned to the International Monetary Fund, which in August 1997 extended $17.2 billion in credits. Thais are angry that the United States did not contribute special credits to this package. But the United States can offer something more valuable: sound advice to prevent future crises.
The first step is to restore confidence in Thailand's financial sector. Banks need to resume normal business before the economy can begin to recover. To strengthen Thailand's financial sector, the Clinton Administration can urge Thailand to:
Sell bad assets from failed and troubled banks. Thailand created a government agency, the Asset Management Corporation, to acquire and liquidate bad assets (those not generating revenue). The United States could offer this agency much practical advice from its experience with Resolution Trust Corporation, which helped failed U.S. savings and loan institutions sell their assets.
Create a currency board regime. A currency board regime would fix the value of the baht to the U.S. dollar and allow the interaction of U.S. Federal Reserve policy and market forces to determine the domestic money supply, and therefore the inflation rate, in Thailand.
A currency board, however, can succeed only in conjunction with other economic reforms that build greater transparency and accountability in Thailand's economy. The Clinton Administration can help Thailand to do so by urging that it:
Increase corporate accountability. Thailand should adopt rules to allow outsiders to change the leadership of poorly run corporations. Such rules will make directors and managers more accountable to shareholders.
Since World War II, the United States and Thailand have developed a strong strategic and economic partnership, building on a friendship that dates back to 1833. The United States benefited from access to bases in Thailand during the Vietnam conflict and during the Persian Gulf War. With Thailand facing significant military cutbacks, this alliance currently is more valuable to Thailand. The United States can help Thailand by finding an alternate buyer for expensive fighter aircraft that Thailand recently purchased but now cannot afford. The United States also should ask Thailand to allow it to preposition military supply ships in Thai ports. These supplies can help deter conflict in Korea and the Persian Gulf--which also benefits Thai security interests.
As an ally, the United States has the obligation to help Thailand recover from this crisis. The best assistance the United States can offer is advice on how to strengthen confidence in Thailand's financial sector and how to prevent similar crises in the future. Thailand deserves serious attention from U.S. policymakers, and Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai's visit to Washington, D.C., offers the opportunity to affirm support for this long-time ally of the United States.
Richard D. Fisher, Jr., former is Senior Policy Analyst in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.
Robert P. O'Quinn is a former Policy Analyst in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.