KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson paid visits to Thailand and Malaysia on Tuesday, in an effort to shore up relations with two of America’s Southeast Asian allies and urge them to maintain pressure on North Korea.
Tillerson flew to Bangkok from the Philippines, where he had met with his counterparts from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations at an annual regional gathering that focused heavily on North Korea’s push to advance its nuclear weapons and missile programs.
He became the top U.S. official to visit Thailand since the nation’s military seized power from an elected civilian government three years ago, causing relations with the United States to sour.
Thailand has long been one of Washington’s closest regional allies, but relations have been strained over U.S. criticism of Thailand’s military government for its repression of critics and failure to restore democracy. However, President Donald Trump’s administration has made human rights less of a priority than did its predecessors.
Thailand, like other Southeast Asian countries, has also been cultivating closer ties with China, causing consternation in Washington. The Thai position has been seen as both a rebuke to Washington and an accommodation to Beijing’s aggressive carrot-and-stick diplomacy, which includes both the blandishment of massive infrastructure development projects linking the region and intimidation through naval moves to promote Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai indicated to reporters that he and Tillerson had discussed Washington’s efforts to ensure that pressure was maintained on North Korea to drop its nuclear weapons program. He said Thailand, as a member of the United Nations, adhered to its sanctions on Pyongyang, which resulted in a 94 per cent decline in trade with North Korea from January to June this year compared to the same period last year.
Don said that in his 45-minute talk with Tillerson, “Nothing was discussed about human rights.”
“In all, it was a comprehensive visit to build understanding over a variety of important issues,” Don said, adding that Tillerson raised the issue of cybersecurity, which they discussed briefly. Thailand allegedly has been used as a springboard for third parties to launch major cyber-attacks, reportedly including the 2014 hack of film studio Sony Pictures.
Tillerson also met Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha during his visit, and paid his respects to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died last October.
Tillerson flew to Malaysia later Tuesday for the last scheduled stop of his Southeast Asia tour. Immediately after landing at an air base just outside Kuala Lumpur, he was whisked off to Parliament for a meeting with Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Malaysia’s relations with the U.S. had warmed after Najib took office in 2009, following decades of periodic distrust. But Najib has increasingly leaned toward China, which had become Malaysia’s biggest trading partner, and especially after the eruption two years ago of a massive corruption scandal implicating Najib and a state investment fund he founded.
Billions are alleged to have been syphoned from the fund, 1MDB, in a stunning international campaign of embezzlement and money laundering that has sparked investigations in several countries.
Najib’s ties with Washington became strained when the U.S. Justice Department moved last year to seize more than $1 billion in assets it said were purchased by Najib’s relatives and associates using stolen 1MDB money. Najib has denied any wrongdoing.
Tillerson will meet with Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi on Wednesday before departing Malaysia.