Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Defence Minister Sukumpol Suwanatat and others are looking at the US suggestion to make U-tapao the site of a regional disaster response centre.
While it may be true that "the devil is in the details," both these matters are simple as international relations go. But both the government and the US embassy in Thailand have done a poor job of introducing both proposals. This seems to have caused confusion and even consternation in some circles. The government and US spokesmen should have known this long before the issues were dribbled out.
There should be no hesitation about the Nasa missions. The US space agency's climate studies are ongoing, and there is nothing new or sinister about the request to use U-tapao. Indeed, Nasa has a long-standing arrangement to use U-tapao. The naval air base was a standing alternate landing strip for the US space shuttles, now discontinued. U-tapao, improved to its current standards during the Vietnam War, remains the longest and most open airstrip anywhere on this side of the world.
In the event, no space shuttle ever used U-tapao. But Nasa's standing contract with the government and the Royal Thai Navy was only one such deal between Washington and Bangkok. Since shortly after the post-Vietnam War US military withdrawal from Thailand in 1976, U-tapao has been used as a transit and refuelling base for US Air Force transport planes.
Under special and separate agreements, it also has been used as a combat transit base, most notably during the 2003 build-up for the invasion of Iraq.
On the face of it, the proposal to base a joint Thai-US Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) centre there seems extremely worthwhile. The US Defence Department manages HADR facilities in other parts of the world. The US military response to the 2006 tsunami bears remembering. In that case, it had to first assemble relief in Japan, then carry it to U-tapao for staging. In Aceh, aid by the US Navy was truly effective.
There is an easy way to determine if neighbouring countries have objections to either proposal for U-tapao: Ask them. When critics of the US talk about neighbours, they mean China. But China has expressed no official opposition to such actions. The China Daily, for example, stated of the US intention to "pivot" towards the Pacific, that the "United States is more than welcome [in East Asia], so long as it plays a constructive role".
It is difficult to think of more constructive projects than a disaster relief centre and a regional climate study _ whose results must be made public. For certain, opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva is correct that the proposed disaster centre should be put to parliament. But then, Mr Abhisit has not expressed opposition to either plan. Barring some unknown and troubling issue which could still arise, these proposals should sail through so authorities can get back to considering important national matters.