Thais hope to get off Trump’s trade hit list

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be the most senior US official to visit Thailand since a 2014 coup. Reuters

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thai officials voiced hope ahead of a visit by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson of escaping US pressure over the size of their trade surplus with the United States as their figures point to a jump in imports, but US data shows little change.

A spokeswoman for the State Department’s East Asia Bureau said Mr Tillerson, who will be the most senior US official to visit Thailand since a 2014 coup, will discuss a broad range of issues including security, trade and investment.

Mr Tillerson visits Bangkok today after attending regional meetings in Manila at the weekend.

A narrowing trade gap would also reduce the risk of Thailand being labelled by Washington as a currency manipulator – the last thing Thailand wants as it struggles with a baht currency that exporters find uncomfortably strong.

According to Thai customs-cleared figures, imports rose 35 percent from a year earlier in the first six months of 2017 while exports to the United States rose 7 percent.

That meant Thailand’s trade surplus over the six months narrowed from $6 billion to $4.8 billion.

“We hope higher imports from the US will help ease pressure on this issue and the trend should continue,” Pimchanok Vonkhorporn, head of the commerce ministry’s trade policy and strategy office, said yesterday.

However, US figures calculated using a different methodology showed little change in the gap during the first five months year on year. The US estimate of a Thai trade surplus of $18.9 billion put it in 11th place on US President Donald Trump’s list of countries to be investigated.

The growth in Thailand’s imports from the United States this year was led by planes and parts, circuit boards, chemicals, metal and machinery and parts, the Thai data showed.

It shows “we haven’t conducted any trade protectionist policy”, said Thanavath Phonvichai, professor at the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce.

After being put on the US list, Thailand defended itself with a 22-page justification that covered everything from its support for the United States in the Korean War to investment by US companies in Thailand.

About 40 percent of Thai exports to the United States come from US firms, officials say. Thailand is the world’s No. 2 maker of hard drives, with US firm Seagate Technology and Western Digital among big players.

Although the Trump administration has indicated no specific action against Thailand, Mr Trump has ordered a study into the causes of US trade deficits.

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