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BANGKOK (Reuters) - The leader of Thailand's military junta said on Tuesday U.S. President Donald Trump assured him that ties would become "closer than ever", marking an abrupt change in stance from the one taken by Washington following a 2014 coup.
Trump invited Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to visit the White House in separate telephone calls over the weekend as he sought to shore up regional support amid mounting U.S. tension with North Korea.
"The U.S. president said that we are their good ally and he assured me that although we have been rather distant recently Thai-U.S. relations will now be closer than ever," Prayuth told reporters in Bangkok.
Prayuth has accepted Trump's invitation, but the Thai government has not said when the visit would take place.
Thailand is Washington's oldest ally in the region, but ties were strained by the military coup led by Prayuth in 2014 that ousted an elected civilian government.
Although relations were improving even before the Trump administration took over, pro-democracy activists fear the United States will put even less pressure on Thailand's generals to hand over power promptly.
A general election that the junta first promised for 2015 will not happen before next year and the constitution has been amended to ensure the military retains a strong say in politics.
Despite cooler diplomatic ties, Thailand and the United States have continued to hold joint military and police exercises including the annual Cobra Gold military exercises, Asia's largest multinational drill.
Trump's weekend invitation to Duterte in particular was condemned by rights groups, upset by the Philippine leader's bloody war on drugs.
The White House has defended the invitation.[L1N1I3097]
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok said on Tuesday she had nothing to add.
Thai businesses have said they are worried about Trump's protectionist stance on trade. Thailand had a trade surplus of about $18 billion with the United States last year.
The United States is Thailand's second-largest export market this year after China.
Trump promised to increase "trade cooperation" with Thailand and send a trade delegation, Prayuth told reporters, without elaborating.
One political analyst warned not to read too much into Trump's overture.
"Trump might yet go after Thailand's trade surplus with America. Thailand is among the 16 countries whose trading arrangements he has singled out for scrutiny," Dr Nigel Gould-Davies, an International Relations lecturer at Mahidol University International College in Thailand, told Reuters.
"Second, most of Trump's views are variables, not constants. There is no guarantee that they won't shift again. So Prayuth will likely see this call, as well as other recent U.S.-Thai contacts at senior levels, as encouraging rather than transformational."
The junta is struggling to lift growth in Southeast Asia's second's largest economy, which has lagged regional peers.
Additional reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Panarat Thepgumpanat and Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Robert Birsel