UNTIL recently, one of the best-kept secrets in international trade has been the Thai market, a most promising environment for United States investments and sales of goods and services. With an economic growth of 11.5 percent last year, and nearly 10 percent this year, Thailand offers many opportunities in such diverse fields as engineering, pollution control, electronics, city planning, consumer goods, communications, fast-foods, tourism, medicine, offshore manufacturing, and fashion. Relatively few United States companies are focusing on this market. To be sure, it is halfway around the world. Furthermore, much publicity about Thailand has been negative, dwelling on Thai piracy and patent infringement, drug trafficking, monopolistic tobacco practices, snarled traffic, prostitution, unfair labor practices, speculation on domestic instability, cronyism, and a fickle foreign policy.
In truth, Thailand is a stable land of traditional values and delicate manners - an exotic culture that remains constant and largely predictable.
All things being equal, the Thais prefer to deal with egalitarian Americans over other trade partners.
Officials of the two countries will meet in Washington today and tomorrow to discuss US claims that Thailand has engaged in unfair trade practices. US annoyance is focused on commercial piracy and patent infringement of software and pharmaceutical products by a few unruly Thais, possibly in collusion with Chinese commercial pirates centered in Hong Kong, who may want to shift their operational base to Thailand. The US wants tougher laws and stricter law enforcement by the Thai government. Although not stated publicly, the leaders of both countries understand that this will take time.
Because of this understanding, both countries expect a successful outcome from the coming talks, enabling the long-standing good relations between the two countries to continue. The US and Thai friendship goes back at least as far as the King of Siam's offer to provide elephants to President Lincoln during the Civil War.
It was largely a symbolic gesture and a spur to action, therefore, when US policymakers, generally well-disposed toward Thailand, nevertheless gave her a slap on the wrist last January. The US threatened to designate Thailand an unfair trading nation and a priority country for economic sanctions.
Furthermore, a small segment of Thai products was removed from the duty-free status they enjoyed under the Generalized System of Preferences, a program designed to help poorer countries' exports. The friendly warning was given on the last day of the Reagan administration, making it easy for the new administration to reverse it.
As for Thailand's overtures to the Southeast Asian communist regimes last April, Thailand has merely reverted to its traditional and highly successful foreign policy of accommodation, conciliation, and compromise. By enticing the communists of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to Bangkok for talks about regional economic cooperation, Thai prime minister Chatichai Choonhaven hopes to turn Indochina ``from a battlefield to a marketplace,'' with Thailand at its center.
Given these social, political, and economic developments, the US companies that turn their attention to this newly industrializing market of 50-plus millions, centered in richly endowed Southeast Asia, will do much to improve their own bottom lines while assisting the US trade deficit. Thailand's leadership is open to privatization and is offering excellent incentives to foreign companies - not only the usual tax breaks, but also active assistance.
Success in the Thai market depends on a company's ability to adapt to the subtleties of the exotic Thai culture. American executives must understand the complex and symbiotic relationships among the politicians, military, bureaucrats, and the Chinese minority, and learn to make these relationships work in their favor.