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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Thai Elections Won’t Shift Bangkok’s Drift Toward China

This weekend, Thailand will hold its first national election in more than four years, and only its second since a coup d’état nine years ago. Regardless of its outcome, the old adage that “politics stops at the water’s edge” is certain to hold concerning the kingdom’s prevailing foreign policy orientation toward China, and to result in further weakening of its treaty alliance with the United States.

Last year was clearly the United States’ strongest in Thailand since the coup. In February, in the Biden administration’s report on the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy—the first to be released publicly from the White House—Thailand was mentioned on page one, and the first-ever combined U.S.-Thailand Strategic and Defense Dialogue took place in Washington in May. The Thais then remained in town for the U.S.-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Special Summit, the first ever to be held in Washington, D.C., and effectively an apology for the Trump administration’s treatment of Thailand during its ASEAN chair year in 2019.

Thailand then joined 12 other nations in signing on to Biden’s new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity. An agreement in June concerning technology that detects threats to military installations was little-noticed but significant, as it was negotiated by the U.S. Air Force, which had expressed concern about increasing Thai-Chinese air force cooperation since 2015.

During the summer, the United States stepped up its ground game in Thailand with a series of high-level visits. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin discussed military modernization and interoperability with his Thai counterparts. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai signed a bilateral communiqué they extolled as an expansion of the “communiqué in Washington 60 years ago that solidified the US-Thai alliance,” signed by then-Thai Foreign Minister Thanat Khoman and then-U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk. And the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok received a new ambassador in Robert F. Godec, who differed from his predecessor, appointed by former U.S. President Donald Trump, in having held two previous ambassadorships during 37 years of foreign service experience.

The fourth visitor arrived in November accompanied by controversy. On the one hand, the attendance of Vice President Kamala Harris at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) gathering could only be seen as the kind of quintessentially American mistake it had been making in Thailand for 25 years. After Bangkok agreed to change the original APEC dates to accommodate midterm U.S. congressional elections, Biden still chose to attend the moveable feast of his granddaughter’s wedding over a gathering of 15 fellow heads of government. The Thais gave Chinese President Xi Jinping a rock star’s welcome and, six months on, have largely forgiven the White House but not forgotten.

Yet somewhat blunting the damage was that Harris was in Thailand at all, after skipping it on a trip to the region in 2021, and that earlier in the month Biden himself had attended the ASEAN summit in Cambodia and upgraded U.S.-ASEAN relations to a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” To the last in-person ASEAN summit, Trump had sent a national security advisor who was less than two months into his job and had never worked in Asia.

In contrast to a banner year for America, Chinese relations with Thailand in 2022 hit an equally rare rough patch. Beginning in January, Beijing upset trade ties with the continued the closure of its land borders, which Thais depend upon for many of their exports of rubber, electrical parts, produce, and other perishables to China. The same happened to Thai seafood, cars, and other goods when turnaround times at ports in Shanghai and Shenzhen went from hours to weeks. Nor could coveted Chinese travelers leave their country: Thailand’s total 11.5 million tourists in 2022 was nearly equal to those from China alone in 2019.

Pre-COVID-19, the Chinese had also bought the largest share of Thai condominiums sold to foreigners—nearly 10 times larger than the next country. During the first quarter of 2022, however, transfers to Chinese buyers dropped by 38 percent as city after city in China went into lockdown. This hit both Thailand’s private and public sectors hard, as its post-coup governments had bet heavily on unchecked condo construction. Overall, Thailand’s trade deficit in goods and services with China, which had soared from $21 billion in 2020 to $30 billion in 2021, crested $31 billion last year when it might have decreased substantially instead.

This concerned the Thais, but they also knew that China’s zero-COVID policy would end eventually. What actually unsettled them, according to this author’s official sources, was Beijing’s abrupt replacement of policies and practices governed by information and a balance of interests—and which had fueled its growth for three decades—with those driven by ideology.

Thais welcomed China’s belated opening in December but worried about what newly arrived tourists might be carrying with them, since Beijing continued to share risible COVID-19 statistics when it deigned to share them at all. From the start it had made available to its citizens only domestic vaccines, refusing to acquire Western-developed mRNA versions and even sowing disinformation about them. This, too, mattered to Thailand, since Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines, which it purchased from China, had long proven less effective than the vaccines the United States and other Western countries gave them.

While China’s signature Belt and Road Initiative had never been prominent in Thailand otherwise, there was hope that a high-speed rail connecting China’s Kunming with Bangkok would finally gain momentum. December 2021 had seen the completion of the first link between Kunming and Vientiane, Laos. Then in April 2022, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pressed his counterpart, Don, for faster construction during an in-person meeting. News of this pressure reached the public, however, exposing both a coercive underside to Chinese diplomacy and the perception of Thai subservience. Not surprisingly then, the rail’s progress remained slow at the end of the year, and China’s grander vision of eventually extending it to Singapore seemed ever more faint.

Nor did Wang’s promotion of China’s new Global Security Initiative gain much traction during a visit to Bangkok in July, perhaps because Chinese engineers broke ground the previous month on a section of Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base to which China had reportedly been given exclusive access. Thailand has no desire to see the Chinese project their presence even further—as they also did last year in Laos and Myanmar—on its three largest borders.

In August, Beijing sent its JH-7AI fighters for the first time to partake in annual Sino-Thai Falcon Strike air force exercises, but the headlines were stolen by trouble below the surface. China’s 2017 deal to sell Thailand up to three S-26T Yuan-class submarines was impeded when Germany, slated to supply the first sub’s engine, refused to deliver it to China if it was to be resold to Thailand. Aware that much of the Thai public viewed the deal as out of touch with COVID-19 (and military) contingencies, Bangkok declined China’s offer to install an engine of its own making.

This reversal of great power fortunes would seemingly give reason to believe that a new government in Bangkok will inherit a U.S.-Thai alliance moving from strength to strength. The United States itself has certainly not let up in 2023, sending the most troops in a decade for the Cobra Gold military exercises in February, promoting this year’s 190th anniversary of the bilateral Treaty of Amity of Commerce, and looking to complete a new U.S. Consulate General in Chiang Mai by Christmas.

But there is a problem: Taiwan.

On Aug. 3, 2022, then-Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi concluded a two-day visit to Taiwan that triggered large-scale Chinese naval-air force exercises around the island. Pelosi was the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit since 1997, but her trip was also part of a pattern of tighter U.S.-Taiwan relations going back to Trump’s days as president-elect. Trump’s actions had alarmed a Thailand chronically averse to rumblings of regional tension and instability—but were tempered by a belief that they might pass with his presidency.

That did not happen. In May, Biden stated for the second time that the United States would defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack. The third time, containing the additional point that U.S. troops would be deployed, occurred just seven weeks after China’s partial blockade of the island in response to Pelosi’s visit and just days after the U.S. Senate passed a new Taiwan Policy Act containing $6.5 billion in military assistance.

Pelosi’s visit and Biden’s words, rendering U.S. “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan far less ambiguous, got the Thais shaking their heads and wringing their hands. In the eight months since her visit, this author has yet to speak with a single Thai official, policymaker, or relevant senior professional who does not think that the United States alone—not China, not both—is responsible for renewed uncertainty and apprehension regarding Taiwan.

The irony is that also on Aug. 3, 2022, the same day Pelosi’s visit ended and eight months after the Thai cabinet approved $414 million to purchase four F-35A fighter jets from the United States, Thailand’s House of Representatives approved $14.7 million to initiate the procurement. Its timing raised uncomfortable questions of where, when, and for what purpose such next-generation jets might be scrambled.

At the same time, as singular and significant an issue as Taiwan is, it is also symbolic of a much larger current running against timely and successful U.S. attempts to regain lost ground in Thailand: the People’s Republic of China. Put simply, to Washington, China is a competitor, adversary, and even threat; to Thailand, it is a cooperative partner, friend, and source of stability. While the latter characterization warrants the occasional qualification, the two positions are not only opposite, but largely opposing.

This current includes the South China Sea, about which the United States and Thailand agree only on the most basic of principles, and Hong Kong, where the United States has condemned and Thailand condoned Chinese repression. It also includes a post-coup Myanmar and an occupied Ukraine, which have likewise seen the United States react with outrage and calls for action, and Thailand with silence and straw men—responses at least amenable to, if not outright consistent with, Beijing’s interests and policies. Indeed, as one of the first attempts since 1941 to annex a sovereign nation transpires on NATO’s doorstep, Thailand happens to be one of only three major non-NATO allies in the whole of East Asia. Yet it joined just 34 other countries last October in abstaining from a vote to condemn Russia’s invasion in the United Nations General Assembly.

Thus, even as the United States increased its engagement with Thailand in 2022 on issues of mutual concern in Thailand, its bigger-picture concerns informing that engagement were not being viewed by Thai counterparts through the same lens. More importantly, U.S. action in those areas, particularly but not solely in Taiwan, either widened preexisting gaps between Washington and Bangkok or created new ones.

Under these conditions, the U.S.-Thai alliance has simply become an empty vessel. When the United States and Thailand first initialed their treaty alliance via the 1962 Thanat-Rusk communiqué, China and the fear of communist infiltration, insurrection, and/or invasion was the reason for both countries to participate. By the turn of the 21st century, the Cold War had been won, but a new War on Terror would begin—with Southeast Asia as its “second front”—and again, Washington came calling in Bangkok. Less threatened and thus less exercised than previously, Thailand nonetheless cooperated with the United States for more than a decade in that war, often citing their bilateral treaty alliance and winning for itself major non-NATO ally status as well.

The third time, however, ever since Trump branded China a peer competitor early in his tenure, the Thais have listened politely to U.S. charges against the Chinese and just as politely set them aside. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” had resonance during the Cold War; 40 years on, Bangkok sees only friends—and alliances are not formed for friends, but against enemies and adversaries.

Geopolitically, alliances by definition apply to big-picture and clear-cut concerns, such as invasions and coups, and are often linked to ideology as much as to interests. They are prominent in a country’s identity, in how it sees itself, and what it stands for; and in its image, how it is defined and seen by others. They are “as long as it takes” commitments, transcending quotidian issues and periodic differences, and are sometimes—blood being thicker than water—the result or cause of bloodshed.

During Blinken’s visit to Thailand last July, the full name of the high-level document he and Don signed was the United States-Thailand Communiqué on Strategic Alliance and Partnership. That final word, partnership, signifies a major, if muted, concession by both sides. For the Thais, decades of beseeching the United States to conceive the alliance in nonmilitary terms—during the 1980s wave of protectionism, the 1997 financial crisis, the 2010 unrest in Bangkok—has finally been accepted as a lost cause. For the Americans, the same is true regarding repeated and increasing attempts to convince Thailand that China (and its constituent issues in Taiwan and elsewhere) is an adversary.

The communiqué’s contents are even more revealing, as the stated goal to “Advance Our Treaty Alliance” is just the ninth of 15 numbered paragraphs and says little beyond “promoting regional peace and security.” The rest of the document focuses on supply chains, criminal networks, public health, food security, energy, digital economy, climate change, cyber security, and a host of other issues—nearly all of which are the subject of U.S. engagement with nearly all other countries in the world with which it engages, including China. No alliance is required; a partnership will do.

Unfortunately, the communiqué’s paragraph on “core principles” also speaks more to past alignment than to a shared approach to present or future governance. For the past two decades, Thai governments of every stripe and color have at least implicitly adopted the “China model” of authoritarian capitalism in their foreign and domestic affairs: How else does one explain Thailand’s affinity for militaries and “strong men” at home as well as abroad? Not for nothing has the United States twice excluded Thailand from its Summit for Democracy.

The United States had a banner year in Thailand in 2022, deepening a partnership it had for too long left untended. “At the water’s edge,” however, beginning but not ending in Taiwan, new lines and limits were drawn that will require more than a single election—and more than the mere rattling of sabers—to cross. Until and unless the United States and Thailand find their “alliance” in a genuine crucible, a partnership it will remain.

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