Thailand's strategic path is rudderless

Thailand's strategic path is rudderless

Despite its favourable geography and rich resources, some domestic shortcomings, in particular political instability, have hindered Thailand's role abroad. 
Despite its favourable geography and rich resources, some domestic shortcomings, in particular political instability, have hindered Thailand's role abroad. 

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc worldwide, domestic tension and pressure will compel three broad responses from the various afflicted countries. First, these countries may react to virus-induced domestic challenges by blaming and taking it out on outsiders. Alternatively, they may be so preoccupied at home that they become marginalised abroad. In other instances, countries that have coped effectively with Covid-19 will be able to regain their footing faster and move on sooner as the rest of the pack remains bogged down in acrimony and discord.

While Thailand appears to fit the second category of foreign policy marginalisation, the United States and China are in the first. Countries like Vietnam, Singapore, South Korea, New Zealand and Denmark -- where domestic consensus prevails and trust in state-society relations is high -- are among the handful of exceptions that will be able to move beyond the virus period faster and better than the rest.

To be sure, all countries will encounter economic adversity caused by the pandemic, with lower growth for some and varying degrees of recession for others. But those with internal political coherence and relative social peace will stand in better stead than their peers that are locked in protracted and visceral divisions.

The US comes foremost to mind in the category of extreme polarisation and externalisation of blame. While its Covid-19 numbers are still on the rise, the country has reopened much of its economy to counter a severe economic contraction down the road. President Donald Trump also harbours vested interests to shift priorities from virus-fighting to economic recovery ahead of elections due in November. Compounding the pandemic is a new round of convulsive anti-racism protests across the country in the aftermath of African-American George Floyd's murder perpetrated by local white policemen in Minneapolis.

From afar, the US looks ravaged inside by internal civil strife, poorly positioned to lead the rules-based international order it constructed after World War II. Instead of mending fences socially at home and ushering in a process of reconciliation and compromise, the US has become even more bitterly polarised. Its rhetoric and discourse by political leaders and ordinary citizens alike have turned squarely against China as the culprit for Covid-19 and the damages it has wrought. While the US's soft power capacity has declined, its military activities and hard power have been ramped up in checking China's assertiveness in what Washington geographically frames as the "Indo-Pacific", intent on keeping the region "free and open" away from Beijing's dominance.

China, in turn, faces a tough economic slowdown. From the pre-virus forecast of 6% growth this year, China is facing much lower growth or a possible recession. Many of its people also have been angered by the Xi Jinping government's draconian measures at the height of the pandemic outbreak. Because of China's top-down authoritarian system, dissent and criticism have been muted. Yet there should be no doubt that domestic tensions in China are putting pressure on President Xi and the Chinese Communist Party to shore up the economy and safeguard public welfare.

In this environment, neither the US nor China can afford to appear weak abroad when there is so much pressure at home. For domestic consumption in both countries, the more the US goes after China in pandemic blame, the more China is going to push back. The dispute between these two superpowers was already in train prior to the virus but Covid-19 has now intensified it. Other states and societies, including those in Southeast Asia, will have to watch carefully as they may soon be forced to choose between one side or the other.

For Thailand, its foreign policy projection and strategic direction have dimmed since 2005, when its domestic crisis and confrontation began in earnest. Since then, Thailand's regional role has been rudderless, reactive rather than pro-active, far below traditional strategic capacity. Worse, there is no prospect of doing better and going somewhere strategically anytime soon. It is a sad fact that should act as a catalyst for the Thai people to get their act together.

Even prior to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020, Thailand's strategic posture had been dominated by political preoccupations at home. The pandemic merely accentuated trends and patterns in Thailand's foreign policy and security outlook in view of the geopolitical rivalry and competition between the US and China. As virus infections have recently shown signs of slowing down, Thailand's strategic role and challenges are on course to return in full, just as they were prior to the virus outbreak. The domestic political instability from cycles of coups, constitutions, and elections since constitutionalism replaced the absolute monarchy in 1932 has made Thailand unable to make a break for a stable political future for the majority of its people. In turn, these domestic shortcomings have hindered Thailand's role abroad.

After more than five years of lacklustre military-authoritarian government following its 13th successful putsch in May 2014, Thailand's poll in March last year produced a controversial parliament and a fractious post-election coalition government, headed by incumbent Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who led the junta that seized power to begin with.

Thailand's circular holding pattern risks sliding into anaemic economic growth while some of its neighbours have been expanding twice as fast with more dynamic prospects and progress ahead.

The coronavirus crisis has compounded Thailand's headwinds as the Thai economy is forecast to suffer the deepest contraction compared to its Asean peers. Moreover, Thailand's structural reforms and economic upgrading to move up value chains and out of the middle-income trap have made little progress, with no promising prospects ahead as long as the political environment remains murky.

So in this case, Thailand will not be acting belligerently abroad to divert attention away from domestic problems. The country will continue to be risk-averse, playing it safe and getting by in international life.

It is a sobering and underwhelming assessment of a country that used to play an instrumental regional role, not least as co-founder and birthplace of Asean. Fortuitously, Thailand has a gifted geography, a critical mass, hospitable people, and well-endowed natural resources.

For the rest of the world, this country cannot be ignored without considerable geopolitical costs. But for the Thais, their country cannot regain strategic heft and command global attention until it goes through a kind of reckoning at home to see what kind of polity and country they want to end up with for a position and role abroad.

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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