Can Bangkok Wean Itself Off Beijing?

Can Bangkok Wean Itself Off Beijing?
What you need to know

It is still unclear whether Thailand will be able to easily re-adjust its strategic position between the two regional powers

Listen
powered by Cyberon

Since the military coup in 2014, Thai foreign policy has moved closer towards Beijing at the expense of its longstanding ties with Washington. But recent developments suggest that there might be a wind change from both Washington and Bangkok.

In March 2017, US President Donald Trump had telephone calls with the leaders of three Southeast Asian nations — the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand — that included invitations to visit Washington. While Duterte showed non-committal acceptance, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha eagerly accepted the invitation with an initial plan to visit at the end of July. But this was later postponed due to Trump’s busy schedule.

What does Bangkok’s recent gesture towards the United States tell us about the triangular relationship between Thailand, China and the United States?

Traditionally, Thailand’s foreign policy is famously dubbed "bamboo bending with the wind" diplomacy. This reflects Bangkok’s ability to choose whichever direction benefits its national interests. Historically, this foreign policy posture helped Thailand preserve its sovereignty and independence amid regional power competition during the colonial period and the Cold War.

But in the current context of regional power competition following the rise of China, Thailand has experienced more difficulties than usual in pursuing this foreign policy strategy. Thailand’s domestic politics since 2006 have also distracted Thai policymakers away from international affairs. Bangkok has not been able to both exercise a regional leadership role and maintain a fine balance between major powers, particularly China and the United States.

After the 2014 coup, gaining international recognition and legitimacy has become a significant issue for Thailand’s military government, which has faced criticism and reduced support from Western nations. In particular, Obama’s cold attitude against the junta widened the gap between Washington and Bangkok. But as China endorsed the coup, the junta has been able to find a cushion to ameliorate political pressure from the West.

To maintain Beijing’s support, the junta has given several concessions to China. Thailand accommodated Beijing’s request to repatriate the Uighur migrants and a number of political dissidents in 2015. Thailand and China have also deepened their security relations through expansion of their joint military exercise and arms sales. The recent purchase of 49 tanks and three submarines from China has alarmed some military experts, as it could signal Bangkok switching sides to China in the long run.

But there has been a stumbling issue in the relationship — the delay in the Sino–Thai high-speed railway project since 2010. The delay has irritated Beijing as it affects its plan of building regional connectivity as part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Beijing’s discontent resulted in the exclusion of Prayut from the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in May 2017. This diplomatic intimidation put pressure on Prayut to invoke Section 44 of the Thai constitution — empowering the prime minister to issue ordinances that bypass existing laws — to clear up legal bottlenecks in the project. After a three-year delay under the junta’s rule, the project is now expected to start in October 2017.

The recent eagerness of the Thai leader towards appeasement of the Thai–US axis may point to Thailand’s unease with the Chinese shame offensive and interest in bending back to Washington. But is it likely that bending with the United States’ wind will be effective this time?

The success of this bending attempt depends foremost on how Bangkok fits in with the foreign policy direction of the current US administration. Besides Trump’s vague Asia policy, his focus seems to be on the North Korean issue. This focus is not where Thailand’s vital interests lie and, because of this, the dynamics of cooperation may eventually fade.

Though still too early to make any final conclusions, the postponement of Prayut’s visit due to Trump’s "busy schedule" hints that Thailand may not be a significant player in Trump’s mind compared to other Southeast Asian nations like Singapore. There has been more frequent contact between Trump and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, including two phone calls and a sideline bilateral meeting at the G20 Summit in Germany. If the Thai prime minister’s visit is prolonged or never takes place, this disappointment may cool bilateral ties again.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s plan to visit Thailand in the second week of August may help reassure Bangkok of Washington’s desire to repair bilateral ties. But the purpose of the visit seems to be to press Southeast Asian states for support on North Korea, not necessarily heal broken relationships.

The US agenda on Thailand for the visit is likely to focus on reviving bilateral free trade negotiations amid its shunting away from multilateralism. There are possibilities that the current regime may also offer concessions on trade to the United States in exchange for the ability to buy US military equipment. Recently, the Thai Defence Ministry revealed its plan to purchase four Black Hawk helicopters. From the perspective of the Thai military, this diplomatic quid-pro-quo may heal some of the wounds.

US–Thai conflict could also reappear due to the United States’ inward-looking attitude on trade issues. The bilateral relationship may face another challenge similar to that of the early 1990s, which was dominated by trade disputes.

Recently, Thailand became one of 16 countries that the United States Trade Representative is examining for practicing unfair trade with the United States. If identified as practicing discriminatory trade practices, Thailand may face trade retaliations from the United States. Amid Thailand’s economic stagnation, prolonging trade disputes will invite more tensions between the two nations and further negative perceptions of the United States in Thailand.

In a nutshell, it is still unclear whether Thailand will be able to easily re-adjust its strategic position between the two regional powers. The success of this repositioning depends largely on signals from both Washington and Beijing.

If Beijing continues its shame offensive tactics and Washington eventually offers a positive gesture, Bangkok is likely to be able to fix its ties with the latter. But should Washington choose to marginalize Thailand, which is a possibility considering the prospect of prolonged military influence in Thai politics, Thailand may have no better choice but to continue to be a good little brother to Beijing.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.