Thailand in the midst of a US-China rivalry

Muddled in its own domestic political and health crises, the kingdom must appease both great-power nations and play them off against each other.

Thailand in the midst of a US-China rivalry Photo: Unsplash

The geopolitical line of argument is that the behavior of states is determined from the outside in: states act and react in relation to the military capabilities of those around them. In recent times, however, the relentless political crisis within Thailand has emerged as a fundamental factor that determines the country’s foreign relations. Domestic politics shape Thailand’s geopolitical strategy, revealing the inside-out impact on the making of foreign policy.

This means that Thailand has encountered a geopolitical dilemma: how to formulate a foreign policy that truly reflects the country’s geopolitical needs and yet at the same time, minimize the compromises with its domestic constraints.

The situation is increasingly complicated for Thailand, as the country is caught in the intensifying rivalry between the United States and China. With the eruption of Covid-19, more questions remain unanswered. How has the pandemic further deepened the Sino-US competition? How will it affect their relations with Thailand? This essay examines these issues.

Geopolitical reality

Thailand is centrally located in mainland Southeast Asia, bordering Myanmar on the west, Laos and Cambodia on the east and Malaysia in the south. This strategic location, to some historians, explains why Thailand was the only country in the region not to be colonized by European powers. Britain and France agreed to keep Thailand as a buffer zone as a way to prevent them from engaging in war, in the colonial period. During the Cold War, Thailand proved once against its geopolitical importance in the ideological conflict between the US-led free world and the communists. Thailand became the front line, facing imminent communist threats within Indochina.

The anti-communist stance compelled Thailand to endorse an alliance approach in its relations with the United States. Thailand never considered a neutral choice. Instead, seeking a guarantor for its security was absolutely essential for Thailand a role to be filled by the United States. Throughout the Cold War, the United States offered strong support for a series of Thai military regimes in combatting communism. Together, they shared a common geopolitical position. But the American support was short lived. The United States withdrew from Southeast Asia at the end of the Vietnam War. Suddenly, Thailand felt abandoned in uncharted waters.

In need of a new security guarantor, Thailand turned to China. The two countries established diplomatic relations in 1975 in the wake of the Americans’ departure. The newfound friendship between Thailand and China survived the Cold War, and was further developed under a new international system of multipolarity. Almost at the same time, China began to rise, contesting American hegemony in Southeast Asia. It was the beginning of an intensifying competition for influence between China and the United States a geopolitical game of which Thailand became a part.

Since the end of the Cold War, China has successfully made inroads into Thailand, constructing political connections among Thai elites. The ethnic Chinese community is well integrated within the Thai society. Thais of Chinese descent have climbed the political ladder; some even reaching the pinnacle of premiership, such as Banharn Silpa-archa, prime minister from 1995 to 1996. Such political connections assist in laying a firm foundation for thriving Thai-Sino relations. Furthermore, bilateral ties have remained healthy thanks to the absence of territorial disputes, the profound relations between the Thai royal family and the Chinese leadership, and the frequent exchanges of visits between the leaders of the two countries’ armies. Since 2012, China has taken over from Japan as Thailand’s largest trading partner. A survey in 2016 showed that the past decade has seen up to 400,000 Chinese nationals taking up residence in Thailand. The number of Chinese tourists visiting Thailand in 2018 was about 10 million.

When the Asian financial crisis hit Southeast Asia in 1997, Japan and China came to the rescue of affected economies, including Thailand. The financial support from Japan and China paved the way for the establishment of the Asean Plus Three framework (ie, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations). It brought together Japan, China and South Korea, to work with 10 Southeast Asian countries to, among other things, build an economic community for the region. Thailand, meanwhile, was let down by its traditional ally, the United States, which refused to pull Thailand out of its financial crisis. The United States only renewed its alliances with Thailand after 9/11.

Although initially reluctant, Thailand went along with the American antiterrorism mission, and as a result was offered in 2003 major non-NATO ally status, which benefitted Thailand in terms of additional military and financial assistance for its Armed Forces. The decade that followed witnessed a rapprochement between Thailand and the United States. The “homecoming” of the US in the region, while serving its own strategic purposes in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, was undoubtedly a calculated step to offset the growing clout of China in this part of the world, including in Thailand.

Protracted domestic crisis

Adecade after the end of the Cold War, Thailand had a political crisis that has redefined its geopolitics. The year 2001 witnessed the rise of Thaksin Shinawatra as prime minister. The success of his government, riding on a series of effective populist policies, transformed a Thai political landscape long dominated by the military-monarchy network.

Thaksin was so popular that he won a second election in 2005, making him the first and only prime minister to have served a full four-year term in Thailand. Thaksin’s rise to political prominence frightened traditional elites, however, prompting them to stage a coup to eliminate him from politics in 2006. Since then, Thailand has been held hostage by relentless conflict between two opposing camps: the traditional elites and the pro-Thaksin supporters, often described crudely as “yellow versus red.”

The political crisis was exacerbated in 2014 when the military staged another coup toppling Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, as prime minister. During this tumultuous period, Thai foreign policy was formulated primarily to respond to domestic objectives, which in turn shaped the way in which the country interacted with foreign powers.

In 2014, the military set up a government led by coup leader Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha. The elections in 2019 did not free Thailand from the domination of the military in politics. The ruling party, Palang Pracharath, nominated Prayuth as prime minister for what would be his second term. The return of Prayuth indicated that the military and the conservative faction of the political elites had regained control over Thai politics, as well as foreign policy.

The coup of 2014, in some ways, served to limit the flexibility in the conduct of Thai diplomacy and constrain the country’s geopolitical considerations.

The coup of 2014, in some ways, served to limit the flexibility in the conduct of Thai diplomacy and constrain the country’s geopolitical considerations. Putting this limitation in the context of the Sino-US rivalry, Thailand has adopted a balancing strategy in handling its relations with the two superpowers, at the same time coping with domestic political troubles. After all, Thailand has remained strategically important for both the United States and China. For Washington, Bangkok is a crucial military ally in an era in which security-related issues are posing concerns for American interests in the region from terrorism, piracy, safety in navigation and maritime security, to nuclear proliferation. For Beijing, Bangkok represents a key player for its economic expansion and plans for political supremacy in Southeast Asia.

For both of them, Thailand serves as a gateway to Asean, as it’s a founding member of the grouping. Issues such as the South China Sea disputes have put Thailand in a unique geopolitical position. Thailand is not a claimant, yet it has refrained from criticizing China’s aggression in the disputed maritime region. The Thais’ lackluster position vis-à-vis China was seen as unconstructive not only by the United States, but also by other Asean claimants that have consistently called for solidarity within the organization.

Between the eagle and dragon

Recognizing Thailand’s importance as a strategic partner, the United States and China have ultimately competed for the maintenance of their political footholds in the kingdom. Here, not only has Thailand encountered a geopolitical dilemma of its own, the United States and China were also compelled to take the Thais’ own domestic crisis into account. They asked themselves: how do we handle the Thai crisis and remain hegemonic in Thailand?

The United States, in the aftermath of the 2014 coup, owing to its own legal obligations, imposed sanctions against the Thai junta. The US began voicing concern about the disappearance of democratic space in Thailand, and the Obama administration subsequently acted. Accordingly, the US government suspended financial assistance to Thailand by $4.7 million and halted joint programs for Thai police training, which included firearms handling and a training trip to the US for senior officers.

Thailand was excluded from the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC), the largest international military maritime exercise in the world, in June 2014 in Hawaii, in response to spiraling human rights abuses in the wake of the military coup. However, the US still participated in Thailand’s Cobra Gold military exercise in February 2015.

That exercise, which is one of the largest in the Asia Pacific and dates back to 1980, typically involves 13,000 troops from 24 regional countries including Thailand. They meet annually, bringing in both large paychecks and technological transfers to the Thai army. Fewer US troops participated than in previous years after the coup: 3,600 in 2015 compared to 4,300 in 2014. And US participation remained limited in 2016, as part of a soft sanctions policy. However, the two countries have never halted the exercise despite the Americans’ open rejection of the military coup.

The American position left a bitter taste in the mouths of Thai leaders in Bangkok. They were astounded by the seemingly changing policy of the US government, which had previously been openly supportive of Thai traditional elites. The United States adopted an “interventionist approach,” exploiting sanctions to control the Thais’ behavior, overtly to ensure the return of democracy to the country but more specifically to warn Thailand of its too-close relations with China. However, since President Donald Trump has taken over the White House, the United States has apparently toned down its interventionist stance, apparently fearing that it might have pushed Thailand too far into China’s sphere of influence. Trump made a phone call to Prayuth after taking office, persuading Thailand to support the United States’ foreign policy agenda. Finally, on Oct 3, 2017, Prayuth was invited to visit the White House and meet Trump. While Thailand focused on an investment by Boeing to boost the Eastern Economic Corridor, the United States welcomed Thai investments in the gas and coal sectors in Texas, the opening of its domestic pork market as well as military purchases. Thailand had planned to purchase helicopters from the United State in deals that were derailed by the 2014 coup, suggesting the strengthening of the bilateral relations.


Meanwhile, The Thai junta increasingly found some comfort in a harmonious friendship with China. Shortly after the coup, Gen Prayuth was seen shaking hands with Chinese business owners, demonstrating the Thai tactic of employing China to offset American sanctions. While the United States undertook an interventionist policy, China cared little about the progressively authoritarian nature of Thai politics. China has long upheld a non-interference standpoint in its foreign policy. Leaders in Beijing concentrate on “making money rather than enemies” and are content to stay neutral in Thailand’s polarized politics.

China’s “pragmatic diplomacy” throughout the recent Thai crisis stole yet another march from the US interventionist approach. While Thai political elites are watching the United States through suspicious eyes, they feel more comfortable with China’s position in the conflict. After the coup, news reporting China’s enthusiasm to invest in a $15 billion high-speed rail project made headlines in Bangkok and gave credence to warm Sino-Thai ties.

China has no pretense about promoting human rights and democracy.

The clash between the two approaches signifies a compelling rivalry between the United States and China. China’s non-interference approach has proven to be effective in cementing ties with some Asean nations, and has now been met with a favorable response from Thai elites who have insisted on handling their own internal problems without outside interference. The United States may have been a strategic partner of Thailand, but Washington’s hands-on approach has widened the gap in this partnership, at least prior to the arrival of Trump. Meanwhile, China has quietly bid to capitalize on that gap, presenting itself as an impartial power in the Thai conflict. Moreover, China has no pretense about promoting human rights and democracy. This firm posture has guaranteed that China will not push for political reforms in Thailand.

Thailand has subsequently constructed an alliance with China in a similar way as it had done with the United States. The Cobra Gold exercise lent its form and purpose to Thailand’s military links with China. In mid-2016, the two countries held naval exercises in the Gulf of Thailand, following the first joint exercises between their air forces the previous year. Since the early 1980s, Thailand has purchased armaments and military-related equipment under this partnership at “friendship prices.” Sino-Thai military links are among some of the most developed in the region second only to Myanmar, China’s once quasi-ally.

Thailand is intentionally balancing its military and financial dependence on the United States by nurturing better relations with China. The Thai junta has displayed its unfailing attempt to reach out to the Chinese leadership through military cooperation. Early in 2017, the Prayuth government signed a $390 million deal to purchase a submarine from China. The payment will be made in installments over seven years. Thailand has also ordered 28 VT4 tanks and 34 VN-1 armored personnel carriers from China. It is noteworthy that the Thai-Sino military exercises have quantitatively and qualitatively lagged far behind US-Thai security relations. The People’s Liberation Army still lacks the American hardware and expertise that Thailand has for many years enjoyed. China does not possess the same military capabilities as the United States, and certainly lacks the sophisticated military know-how to lure Thailand away from its American friend. Although China has rapidly modernized its army in the past decades and augments its military budget annually, it would take considerable time before the country could confidently challenge America’s military supremacy in Thailand. Overall, Sino-Thai relations have greatly improved during the years, and the scale of Chinese military exercises with Thailand will probably increase in the future.

The raging pandemic

At the beginning of 2020, the world was attacked by the deadly Covid-19. Thailand in the past succumbed to a number of transboundary diseases, from Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in 2002 to avian influenza in 2013. But the novel coronavirus was a truly global pandemic. While the situation in Thailand was less devastating in comparison with other countries, the government was heavily criticized for its mismanagement.

Failed policies, such as a lack of a national budget to cope with the spreading virus, and the mishandling of the distribution of protective face masks, sullied by corrupt state officials, destabilized the Prayuth government. In a desperate bid to control the spread of the virus, the government implemented a nationwide after-hours curfew and banned public gatherings, which angered and exasperated the public. Although the curfews have been lifted, the state of emergency is still in place. To calm public anxiety, the government distributed 5,000 baht to needy citizens, but the claims process was messy and not everyone was eligible.

In some ways, the pandemic has reconfigured Sino-US competition into one that offers an edge to China. It is true that China was the epicenter for the pandemic’s outbreak. But Beijing has been busy rewriting the virus narrative. Meanwhile, the United States has concentrated entirely of defending itself, with more than six million cases and 188,000 deaths. The pandemic unraveled an inconvenient truth: neither of the two powers were well prepared for this type of nontraditional security threat.

It also challenged their leadership in crisis. Researchers Ian Storey and Malcolm Cook argue that Covid-19 is likely to aggravate concerns in Southeast Asia about the Sino-US rivalry. The lack of cooperation between the two powers to handle the pandemic has not only deepened the region’s distrust of them, but also exacerbated their negative images. For the United States in particular, the scale of devastation has been overwhelming, preventing it from initiating solutions beyond its borders. This inability has played into the hands of China. Attacked first and recovered first, China has been reaching out to its neighbors, including Thailand, in an attempt to alleviate its negative image as the source of the pandemic, particularly through the use of soft power.

Last January, Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn sent a telegram of sympathy to President Xi Jinping about Covid-19. China reciprocated by sending medical supplies to Thailand in April, (as confirmed by its embassy in Bangkok.) Chinese assistance at this critical time harked back to similar help it gave Thailand in the aftermath of the 1997-199 Asian Financial Crisis. The message is powerful: in times of crisis, Thailand can always rely on its Chinese friend. For Thailand, as emphasized earlier, the growing level of reliance on China leaves little room for foreign policy maneuvers. Although Thai leaders know they cannot fully trust Beijing, they have no other choices but to maintain friendship in the absence of the United States. It is a case of, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, and chief editor of the online journal Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia.

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