At the superpowers table, off their menu

It is all so exciting. US President Barack Obama has come to Bangkok, soon to be followed by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao _ the world's two superpowers, back to back. Immediately, talk of which side Thailand should take abounds, debated by everyone from ordinary citizens to national pundits, so allow me to pitch in.

  • Published: 18/11/2012 at 12:00 AM
  • Newspaper section: topstories

All countries involved _ Thailand, China and America _ will do what they feel is in their best interests, or to be more precise, the best interests of the ruling elites of their respective countries.

Hence, the side Thailand will take is, generally speaking, Thailand's side and in particular the Shinawatra family's side. What's more, playing one superpower off another to preserve our sovereignty is one of the few things Thailand is good at, at least historically speaking.

Looking at the geopolitical map of the world, the US is the master of containment and Poseidon of the seven seas. The US has Iran sandwiched in between Iraq and Afghanistan, giving it a stronghold in the contentious Middle East as well as in Pakistan and India, the nuclear-capable neighbours who can't get along.

Iraq and Afghanistan were taken over for good geopolitical reasons.

Look to the east: the US has China sandwiched between Afghanistan and the friendly Pacific rim nations of South Korea, Taiwan and Japan. Up north, Mother Russia will do as it pleases, and it is a traditional rival of China.

As well, empires are built by those who control the trade routes. The little city of Venice was an empire because it controlled Mediterranean trade. The empires of the Tigris-Euphrates valley of old prospered because they controlled the Silk Route. (For more, read The Next 100 Years by George Friedman and City of Fortune: How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire by Roger Crowley.)

In the middle of the last millennium, the Portuguese learned to navigate around the Cape of Good Hope, gaining access to the Indian Ocean, the route to India, China and the Spice Islands. This was the beginning of the end of the Arab empires, as the Silk Route became less important. Centuries down the road, Britannia ruled the waves, but today the US naval fleet reigns supreme in the sea lanes. International sea trade is done with the blessing of the US. Trade moves the world. If you don't play ball, you'll face embargoes and become that kid the rest of the class is told not to play with. Look at Cuba.

Now let's zero in on a most recent example of how the "great game" is played. The Spratly Islands in the South China Sea are said to contain significant reserves of oil and natural gas. Claimants of the disputed islands include Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and China.

Clashes and tensions have been going on for decades and in May 2011, Philippine President Benigno Aquino warned the Chinese defence minister of a possible arms race.

In September and October of this year, tensions once again rose between China and Asean members. Naval fleets faced off, diplomats wrestled and the Asean Summit in Phnom Phen came to naught because China and the Asean members couldn't reach a compromise. The situation escalated until a US armada approached.

Poseidon of the Seven Seas arrived and everyone went back to their neutral corners. This was a demonstration of power, and it shows that the US is still decades ahead of China in terms of military technology and power. Though economically, one is growing rapidly while the other is stagnating.

The incident also showed that Chinese expansion, whether economic or in terms of territory, will be first and foremost at the expense of neighbouring countries _ which by default makes those countries believe their interests lie with the US, unless China can convince them otherwise.

The world is a chess board. The game for China is expansion and for the US it is containment. In the meantime, it's good to know that economically each country trades and invests in the other heavily. It's the best way to ensure that the rivalry will involve playing politics rather than playing war.

That said, here is where Thailand and Southeast Asia play a role in this great game between the superpowers. China can't go north, can't go east and can't go west. China jumps to Africa because over there things are still open for grabs. Otherwise, the Awakening Dragon looks south.

With this picture, we understand that the recently signed 2012 joint vision statement for the Thai-US Defence Alliance is intended to achieve four things: Promote regional security in Southeast Asia (to contain China's expanding influence); support stability in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond (to contain China's expanding influence); create bilateral and multilateral interoperability and readiness (to contain China's expanding influence); and build relationships, coordination and collaboration at all levels (to contain China's expanding influence).

In the meantime, we also understand China's active interest in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Economic Corridor, which would pave a land transportation route linking China with Southeast Asia, thereby expanding and strengthening economic, national and cultural ties.

Meanwhile, Japan, as an economic powerhouse and one of the biggest investors in the region, is also active in its involvement with the GMS. Japan's heavy investment interests in the region must be protected against the threat of a Chinese takeover.

Similarly, the US has to counterbalance this oncoming north-south cooperation with moves such as the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement.

Hegemonies are built through control of trade routes. Neo-colonies are made by binding a smaller nation's economic survival to a superpower to create one-sided, economic dependence.

From the Romans versus the Carthaginians to the Byzantines versus the Ottomans, and to the US versus the Soviet Union, this is the great game, ancient and time-honoured. Fortunately, in modern times it is played without the bit involving the massacre of the entire male population and selling the women and children into slavery.

Smaller nations such as Thailand tiptoe on a thin rope, playing one big boy off another carefully, protecting Thai national interests _ or the interests of whoever forms the ruling clique, to be more precise.

For example, certain families, clans and networks will surely benefit from that north-south GMS corridor, specifically those in the countries through which it will pass, because a lot of money will come with the project. A different ruling clique would, of course, work to shift the route to benefit their own families, clans and networks.

Don't look for fairness. Don't look for justice. Look for national interests, family interests and then self-interest _ the pursuit of power and money _ this is how the world works.

Thailand by necessity has been looking inward for the past six years. Domestic political intrigue is but a game of checkers compared to global political intrigue, a game for a chess master. The country's current ruling clique knows good business, but do they know geopolitics?

A small fish in a big pond had better learn how to swim with the sharks.

Contact Voranai Vanijaka via email at

About the author

Writer: Voranai Vanijaka
Position: Political and Social Commentator

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