Thailand between the US and China
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Thailand between the US and China


Intensified competition between the US and China arising from escalated tensions has the potential to both benefit and damage Thailand. (Photo: 123RF)
Intensified competition between the US and China arising from escalated tensions has the potential to both benefit and damage Thailand. (Photo: 123RF)

Amid what now has to be acknowledged as a direct non-military conflict and a geoeconomic war of sorts between the United States and China, Thailand is in a quandary. While characterising Thailand's geostrategic dilemma as a US-China binary can be exaggerated and misleading, it does have a point. As with many other developing countries in the region, Thailand will come under increasing pressure to choose between the two competing superpowers. The ability not to choose thus becomes an overarching geostrategic objective.

Among its peer group in Southeast Asia, Thailand's ties with the US and China are unequalled. Although Thailand's geostrategic position and geoeconomic interests are not binary between the US and China because other major and middle powers are crucial in the mix, it is difficult to deny that Washington and Beijing are most consequential in Bangkok's calculus. Broadly put, Thailand has a regionally enviable position of being a longstanding US treaty ally while having historically close and intimate relations with China as a comprehensive strategic partner.

Except for a blip in the 1970s when China supported the Communist Party of Thailand, Bangkok-Beijing ties have gone from strength to strength, aided by the remarkable enmeshment of the overseas Chinese in Thailand's hierarchical society and their phenomenal business success in its economy. For the US, there is a similar blip. While Thai-US ties technically date back 191 years, a span that included Bangkok's siding with Washington during the Cold War, Thailand felt betrayed during its economic crisis in 1997-98 when the US did not come to its aid and instead deferred to the IMF's austere bailout programme.

Over the past two decades of its political volatility and societal divisions, Thailand's relations with China and the US have become a function of Thai domestic politics. When Thailand turned relatively autocratic after military coups in 2006 and 2014, Bangkok was forced to seek superpower support from Beijing in the face of soft but significant US-led Western sanctions, particularly in the last two years of the Barack Obama administration in 2015-16. Accordingly, Thailand has leaned relatively closer to China with a corresponding estrangement from the US since the May 2014 coup. But it is a matter of degrees and nuances, not a wholesale and dramatic shift.

On the flip side, when Thailand's democratic system of parliament, political parties, and elections took precedence over military-authoritarianism, Thai-US ties perked up, although Thai-Chinese relations remained solid. To the extent that there is a binary proportion on the US-China matrix with Thailand in between, it would be something like 52-48 pro-China during more autocratic times and perhaps around 50-50 or 51-49 in favour of the US and the West during democratically elected governments in the contemporary period. Thailand has dense, deep ties with both, although the military-military component of the Thai-US alliance remains the bedrock of relations.

As a result, Thailand's conservative elites have become more sympathetic and supportive of China and more sceptical and critical of the US. Democratically elected governments in 2001-23 became an existential challenge to the conservative establishment. Conservative elites, therefore, are more sceptical of the democratic system and more supportive of autocracy and military-authoritarianism. It has been to China's benefit and advantage that Beijing can deal effectively with both sides of the Thai divide, whether it be democratic/electoral rule or military-backed autocracy, whereas the US-Thai alliance is more problematic under military-authoritarianism.

However, it should be noted that demographics are changing in Thailand. As younger generations reach voting age -- and these young Thais tend to be against military-authoritarianism -- their sentiments are likely to be more critical of China and more favourable towards the US. For example, a number of young Thai activists in 2020-21 sought and gained asylum in the US when they faced legal persecution in Thailand.

The US-China conflict poses additional challenges to Thailand. As with other regional states, Thailand has played it both ways, hedging and leveraging between the two contesting superpowers. The accumulated stock of trade and investment ties remains in the US's favour while the corresponding flow is shifting towards China. Over time, geographical proximity will likely favour China. For example, China's Kunming-Vientiane railway is set to extend into Thailand.

Although the previous military-backed regime dragged its feet on rail development with China over the past decade, the extension from Vientiane to Thailand's northeast region and Bangkok appears inexorable and a matter of time. The government of Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin has already expressed an interest in making it happen. Concurrently, the US policy responses and economic statecraft will matter. If the US woos Thailand -- for example, on the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and investments from tech giants like Tesla and Google -- Bangkok would likely play ball. Put another way, it depends on who becomes a more attractive and aggressive suitor, as Thailand's geostrategic outlook embraces both sides.

In the face of the US-China "decoupling" and "de-risking", Thailand has so far deftly navigated to attract both superpowers to engage and do business in the country. A major determinant will be how much economic pressure the US exerts on Thailand in view of its conflict with China. The US has to be careful. Too much pressure on Thailand could force Bangkok to rely more on Chinese tech, trade, and investment.

The Chinese government also has applied more pressure on Thailand to toe its preferences amid the US-China geoeconomic war. Over time, the chance of Thailand going China's way is more likely to stem more from the massive amounts of Chinese export of people, capital, and technology, partly facilitated by the recently announced bilateral "visa-free" agreement. Overall, the name of the game for Thailand is never to have a zero-sum proposition between the US and China.

So far, it has been savvy and successful, but it is contingent on the absence of a direct US-China military conflict. A trade and tech war is one thing as it allows Thailand to navigate and manoeuvre. But a military conflict would be a game-changer. It is in this wider context that Thai policymakers should chart Thailand's geostrategic course of not having to choose between the US and China and to capitalise on both sides' business and economic avenues.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, PhD, is professor at Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Political Science and a senior fellow at its Institute of Security and International Studies.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow 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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