Shifting Thai alliances in the 21st century

Shifting Thai alliances in the 21st century

An Indian national flag is flown next to the Chinese national emblem in Beijing. The two countries were involved in a flare-up last month over the Bhutan-claimed Doklam plateau. (AP photo)
An Indian national flag is flown next to the Chinese national emblem in Beijing. The two countries were involved in a flare-up last month over the Bhutan-claimed Doklam plateau. (AP photo)

In view of rising geopolitical tensions in Asia, Thailand's foreign policy strategy and posture has come into focus.

The flare-up last month between China and India over the Bhutan-claimed Doklam plateau, for example, has escalated to the point of a "full-scale conflict" threat from Beijing. As the two most populous nations went to war in 1962 over a border dispute, New Delhi's all-out support for Bhutan to prevent China's geographical inroads into northeast India is reminiscent of tensions in the South China Sea and East China Sea, where China has overlapping claims with the Philippines and Vietnam on the one hand and Japan on the other. On the Korean Peninsula, the mad rush for long-range nuclear weapons capability by North Korea, China's long-time client state, is an ominous threat to regional peace and stability across the Pacific. Nearer to home, China's string of upstream dams on the Mekong River poses as an inevitable source of friction with disaffected downstream countries, particularly Cambodia and Vietnam.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

These traditional and emerging hotspots of potential armed conflict in Asia are compounded by global setbacks and domestic polarisation in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. The long peace during the Cold War after two devastating global conflicts appears at risk. Thailand is famous for being a nimble and nuanced survivor through the thick and thin of international diplomacy and war. But its future survival skills should not be taken for granted. Just because Thailand weathered geopolitical storms in the past does not guarantee its future success.

Yet the past is instructive. In distant decades and recent years, Thai foreign policy and diplomacy are world-renowned for its flexibility and pragmatism in the face of rivalry and conflict among the major powers from colonial times and world wars through the Cold War. The Thai foreign policy predilection was known simply as "bending with the wind" and "wait and see" before reacting for minimum disadvantage and maximum leverage.

The focus on pragmatism and flexibility is spot-on but it is incomplete and "after the fact". In other words, all successful foreign policy outcomes are imbued with a degree of pragmatism and flexibility.

When Thailand got through World War II by positioning itself on both sides, with Japan on one hand and the Allies on the other, it was deemed clever in its diplomatic "duplicity" and "ambiguity". But this outcome was not deliberate by design from the beginning but more a consequence of the political divisiveness at home, as elaborated below.

The same logic could be applied to the Cold War, when Thailand sided with the US-led camp to oppose communist expansionism in Indochina as inspired by both the Soviet Union and China. As Thailand together with China (officially the People's Republic of China) participated in the Bandung Conference and joined the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in 1955, a year after signing on to the US-led Manila Pact that established the anti-communist Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (Seato), it looked like Bangkok was hedging its bets. These NAM roots partly helped Bangkok normalise relations with Beijing in the mid-1970s. This was seen as pragmatic in maintaining relations with China while firmly joining the anti-communist alliance. Yet the real picture was more complicated.

Evidently, Thailand never put too many of its eggs in any one basket, always having a foot in more than one door, thereby fitting the description of "bending with the wind". Yet this outlook based on strategic pragmatism and ambiguity for the national interest is facile and overstated. It assumes that Thai foreign relations came out of a coherent, unified and uniform decision-making processes among Thai elites. Put another way, Thai pragmatism was assumed to be singular, systematic and reliably monolithic when, in fact, it was not.

To understand contemporary Thai foreign policy, it is necessary to acknowledge that internal squabbles among its elites are the first order of the day. In turn, the interface between the constant domestic infighting among elites and the fluid geopolitical dynamics abroad is the laboratory of Thai foreign policy formulation and outcomes, decisively shaped and reshaped by Thailand's natural endowments, particularly its gift of geography which bestows agricultural abundance and location as a prime seafront landscape in continental Asia.

In the era of absolutism, geography, diplomatic skills and territorial concessions to the major powers, namely Great Britain and France, explain Thailand's survival from the claws of colonialism. Power, authority and decision-making during the absolutism years from the mid-19th century to June 1932 over four reigns were less contested and less contentious than in later decades. Notwithstanding pockets of dissent and disapproval, the monarchs and nobles ruled Siam (rebranded as Thailand in 1939) as they saw fit.

During the traumatic period of Franco-British bullying and territorial grabs in the 1890s, which culminated with the corresponding 1907 and 1909 treaties, domestic politics in Siam was centralised in an unchallenged hierarchy, although with a degree of upward mobility for commoners. Some say that Siam joining the Allies in World War I in July 1917, after its initial neutrality and three months after the US declared war on Germany, was smart and pragmatic. No doubt it was. The 1,300-strong Siamese expeditionary force suffered 12 casualties (compared to millions for the main combatant countries) and ended up a victor at the Versailles Conference where a six-year negotiating process began to end unequal treaties with European powers on extraterritoriality and taxation. But apart from the fear of being punished for its neutrality, Siam at the time also faced internal rebellions against the throne, particularly the failed coup in 1912 and another pre-empted plot in 1917. Without these domestic constraints, Siam might have changed its mind sooner.

From June 1932, domestic divisions became salient, first between opponents and supporters of the absolute monarchy in 1932-33, then between civilian and military elites until 1947, and later between two competing military-business coalitions in 1947-57.

The reason Thailand famously embraced both sides in World War II was not some preordained pragmatism but because of the civil-military struggle among those who overthrew the absolute monarchy, pitting civilian leader Pridi Banomyong against military strongman Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsonggram (Phibun). When Phibun signed a non-aggression pact with the Japanese, the Pridi camp seized the opportunity not to deliver a declaration of war to the US government. Backed by the pro-Western partisan movement and his own power base known as Seri Thai, Pridi triumphed at home as the Allies won the war. Phibun returned to his modest chicken farm in Nonthaburi province on a road that bears his name today, whereas Pridi soon became prime minister.

But Pridi's premiership was short-lived, complicated by the mysterious death of King Rama VIII in June 1946. His subsequent counter-coups, with support from the navy's high command, were fruitless. A putsch in November 1947 enabled Phibun to return to power on a broad army-led coalition. By June 1951, after the failed coup known as the Manhattan Rebellion, the navy was defanged, Pridi's hope of regaining power was extinguished, and the army began its dominance of the military and Thai politics. So Thailand's pragmatism at that time was an outgrowth of domestic political divisions.

During Phibun's premiership, the tide of communism was beginning to sweep the region. The pro-US anti-communist wing in his military-led administration enthusiastically joined Seato, while a pro-neutrality but not necessarily pro-communist faction preferred to hedge and kept contact with China. For example, one of Phibun's closest advisers, Sang Phathanothai, sent two of his children to Beijing to be brought up under the patronage of Premier Zhou Enlai. The China door remained open due to divergent preferences within the Phibun administration. Even after the coup in September 1957 by Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, a staunch US ally, the China door was never completely closed. And it facilitated Thai-Chinese realignment in 1975. What these past experiences tell us is that there is more to Thailand's pragmatism and flexibility. Domestic determinants have much to do with it. Thai foreign policy can be more aptly labelled "strategic diversification" or hedging "by default". Internal squabbles and power plays are a given and react to what happens outside (and vice versa).

With their eggs always in different baskets, Thailand's competing elites tend to move in different directions. The upside is that when push has come to shove, there has always been a way out of existential crises from outside. But when the abroad is relatively secure and stable, domestic divisions tend to degenerate. The downside is a lack of peace at home and the costs associated with divisiveness.

Based on past lessons, it appears the current military regime has placed too many eggs in the China basket. Perhaps this is why the government of Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha is so eager to visit the White House after President Donald Trump reportedly extended an invitation. It is as if the military government knows it has gone too far with China and has lost leverage in the process. And now it may be trying to rebalance, which is advisable. What we should be looking for now is leverage and support from the other major powers outside the US-China rivalry, especially Japan, India, Russia, Australia, South Korea, and the Asean neighbourhood more broadly.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak


A professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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