Subtle diplomatic dance
Govt 'won't take sides' in region, despite Gen Austin's visit
Last week's visit to the kingdom by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was seen as underscoring Washington's recognition of Thailand as a significant player in the region's security.
At the same time, Thailand has been warned by political scientists and security experts that it must play its cards right and maintain a fine balance in the fragile global diplomatic climate in which the Russia-Ukraine conflict is compelling countries to choose sides.
Thailand was Gen Austin's first stop after attending the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) in Singapore from June 10-12. He was here from June 12-14. The SLD has long been regarded as one of the top security meetings in the Asia-Pacific region.
In his opening remarks at a meeting with Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha on Monday, Gen Austin recalled Gen Prayut's participation in the Asean Special Summit in Washington last month. He also hammered home Thailand's importance to bilateral, collective security.
Gen Austin further spoke of the two nations' people-to-people and soldier-to-soldier ties as well as the shared security challenges, and vowed to build interoperability through joint training exercises in disciplines such as maritime security, deterrence and military medicine.
Cutting to the chase, Gen Austin said he was eager to share perspectives on pressing regional issues, including growing tensions in the South China Sea.
Gen Austin's visit came after the creation of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) last month by US President Joe Biden with a dozen initial partners: Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, Republic of Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Together, the member countries represent 40% of the world's GDP, according to the White House.
The United States is an Indo-Pacific economic power, and expanding US economic leadership in the region is good for American workers and businesses -- as well as for the people of the region, according to the White House's announcement.
It will also enable the United States and US allies to decide on rules of the road that ensure American workers, small businesses and ranchers can compete in the Indo-Pacific, it said.
The framework will focus on four key pillars to establish high-standard commitments that will deepen the US's economic engagement in the region: connected economy, resilient economy, clean economy and fair economy.
In some experts' views, the IPEF is the US's latest vehicle to stave off expanding economic and security influences involving other countries in the region.
Piti: Approach Asean and forge friendships
Diplomacy the best policy
While Washington has a number of tools and mechanisms at its disposal to counter China, it knows it should exploit diplomacy to win over allies, according to Chulalongkorn University political scientist Surachart Bamrungsuk.
The visit by Gen Austin to a small country like Thailand remains open to interpretation. It could be seen as a US attempt to improve relations with the region, which have been at a low ebb for many years.
The easing of the Covid-19 pandemic and the SLD presented an ideal opportunity for Washington to send its senior security official as an unspoken message that the US still attaches importance to Thailand.
Mr Surachart said he did not think the US would press Thailand, through Gen Austin's visit, to take sides in the face of growing divisions in the world. Rather, Washington knows that it should opt for a subtle approach via diplomacy.
He dismissed fears that China could invade Taiwan and that Taiwan could end up the next Ukraine.
China in early March warned the US against any attempt to build what it described as a Pacific version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato). Beijing also made it clear that security disputes over Taiwan and Ukraine were not comparable.
At the same time, Thailand's membership in the IPEF neither carries political undertones nor implies the country was being inducted into a military or security bloc. "It won't go that far," he said.
However, the political scientist has cautioned the Thai leadership not to take the country's neutral stance for granted. In the volatile security circumstances, the government must know what part to play and act the part.
In the case of the political and social unrest in Myanmar, for example, Mr Surachart said Thailand has not asserted a significant role that might contribute to stability.
Panitan: Stick to regional cooperation
US eyes Asean
The US feels the need to consolidate allies to keep China's influence at bay and is cosying up to Asean, said Piti Srisangnam, director of academic affairs at Chulalongkorn University's Asean Studies Center.
Under the US's national strategy adopted in 2017, China is deemed a threat to the country. That, coupled with China's economic might, has prompted the US to curtail Beijing's expanding powers and one way of doing that is to approach Asean and forge friendships with the bloc.
With Thailand's prominent position in the Asean region, it comes as little surprise that the US's defence secretary and its leading military figures have taken trips to Thailand.
The US's ultimate strategic goal is to limit China's influence to retain its own position in the region. It knows when to play hard ball and when to compromise.
"Some think the US emulated China's strategy. For example, it invented the IPEF to rival China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)," Mr Piti said.
The IPEF is noted for its broad framework with emphasis on talks with member countries which can be rewarded with offers of investments in basic infrastructure. There have been similar projects pledged by the US previously but few yielded substantive results, he said.
However, China has backed up BRI projects with finances, such as the Silk Road Fund, he added.
Mr Piti said he did think the US would be willing to invest so much in monetary terms to win friends. But Washington must appreciate the reality that it must adopt different tactics in approaching Asean.
"The US eyes the areas around the Bay of Bengal, particularly Myanmar which is strategically located and endowed with natural resources."
He said it was reassuring that Thailand has managed to avoid being a party to the conflict in the South China Sea. However, the economy stood to be adversely affected if, for example, security tensions disrupted shipping passing through the area.
"We may have risen above the conflict but we have to closely monitor any events that unfold," he said.
Turning to the Cobra Gold annual war games with the US, Mr Piti said the joint military exercise, the biggest in Asia, presents a challenge for Thailand which must strike a delicate balance by taking part in military drills with both China and India.
No pressure: Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha walks with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at the Defence Council. Gen Austin arrived in the kingdom for an official visit from June 12-14.
Tread a fine line
Similarly, Thailand has to tread a fine line economically, especially when it comes to maintaining its presence in the IPEF, said Panitan Wattanayagorn, chief of the government's security affairs committee.
As long as Thailand follows through with the bilateral agreements with the US under the IPEF, including those related to defence cooperation, there should be no problem.
However, the cooperation should work within the Asean Outlook on Indo-Pacific (AOIP) which envisages Asean centrality as the underlying principle for promoting cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, with Asean-led mechanisms such as the East Asia Summit (EAS) providing platforms for dialogue and implementation of Indo-Pacific cooperation.
"We need to stick to the AOIP," he said.
Certain talks must proceed carefully so as to avoid making close friends or trade partners, such as China, Russia or some Asean countries, feel Thailand has been drawn away to one side, he said.
In one sense, Thailand matters economically to the US which is keen to sell its weapons. The sales would help reduce the US's trade deficit with Thailand.
In terms of political and military strategies, Thailand can create advantages for countries engaged in conflicts in the region.
"We mustn't drop this trump card. We use it only when necessary," he said, noting that during World War II Thailand had sided with Japan, causing the country to shoulder reparations after the war.
With the IPEF, he suggested Thailand remain economically neutral as the US is likely to generate a political "spin" from the framework. "The cooperation will proceed on top of discord," he said.
Mr Panitan said next year's Cobra Gold, likely to resume as full-scale war games now that Covid-19 is receding, is meant to unnerve China. "We have to plan it well," he added.
At the onset of the National Council for Peace and Order-engineered coup in 2014, the US threatened to pull the plug on the joint military exercise although now it has changed its mind.
Nato 2 rhetoric 'baseless'
Meanwhile, Tanee Sangrat, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and director-general of its Department of Information, insisted Thailand maintains cordial relations with all countries.
He said the country has entered into bilateral cooperation with friendly countries in security and not for the purpose of collective defence, as is the case with the Nato.
He denied claims about Thailand subscribing to the so-called "Nato 2" or "Nato of Asia" US-led military alliance.
He said such rhetoric may have caused friendly countries like China, Russia and Iran to feel uneasy since Thailand may be perceived as leaning towards the US.
Turning to the IPEF, he said the framework is intended to promote the economy and developments in trade, the supply chain, clean energy and the fight against corruption.
No agreements have been signed that would create legal obligations on Thailand's part. "Thailand has enjoyed close and smooth relations with both China and the US," he said.