Diplomatically, Prayut is sandwiched
To cut to the chase, a Pheu Thai-led Thailand will be friendlier to America than a Palang Pracharat-led one. Things are getting more complicated with the current US-China trade war, and much is up to Washington as far as bilateral relations with the kingdom go. Should there be more carrots or should there be more sticks when dealing with Prayut Chan-o-cha?
However, the Thai prime minister’s tightrope is not much less treacherous, and he is not in a perfect position to play hard to get, although Donald Trump faces a bigger dilemma as his fight for a second term looms. China’s retaliatory tariff hikes will hurt the United States’ agricultural sector and can significantly chip away at his political support. Should Trump back down, or should he keep up the showdown with Beijing? Either way, it will require a very delicate diplomatic dealing with Thailand.
Prayut, meanwhile, is well aware of what the trade war can do to the Thai economy, which is heavily linked to his government’s stability. Should he go all out to revitalize the American ties, so that a sour economy won’t be compounded by problems with the West, or should he put more eggs in the Chinese basket, a relatively fair bet considering the current state of affairs?
Sitting on the fence in this context is China. The leaders in Beijing have no elections to worry about and are far better poised to mitigate political backlash of a bad economy.
The United States has been giving Thailand both carrots and sticks. There have been more carrots than sticks lately, though. A few weeks ago, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo commended Thailand for “returning to the democratic fold”. A few days ago, it got arguably sweeter for Prayut. In a rare sympathetic comment from the United States about Thai politics, Thai-American US Senator Tammy Duckworth urged Thais to be patient with the “messy” nature of democracy. Her exact words are “Jai yen yen (calm down/be patient/take it easy)”.
She visited Prayut during her first official visit to her birthplace Bangkok since she was elected in 2016. At a press conference, she congratulated Thailand on a “successful election”, frustrating foreign correspondents who saw the election and related affairs as anything but a total democratic success. She responded by comparing American history to that of Thailand. “One hundred years after we became a democracy, we had a civil war that killed hundreds of thousands of Americans … we are nowhere close to that here,” she said. “Real democracy is messy … I understand the frustration of those who want things to move faster in Thailand and I agree with you.”
There is neither carrot nor stick from China when Thai politics is concerned. Bilateral problems are mostly about intra-continent projects that the Thai side responded to too slowly or were carried out by China while Thailand being left out of the picture.
The diplomatic triangle has complicated Thai politics and will continue to do so, generating glaring ironies along the way. A lot of anti-America activists of a few decades ago have become pro-Pheu Thai, despite the fact that when the party was in power, it gave positive signals for overseas American military interests intertwining with Thai sovereignty issues, something those activists could not live with during their younger days. Many pro-America Thais of yesteryear are now dismayed at what they perceive as too much meddling in Thai political affairs, a practice that had not been frowned upon that much when the Chinese-backed, now-defunct Communist Party of Thailand was at its peak.
Top American and Chinese political figures have posed with Prayut. They have done so separately but the man is practically sandwiched by the two countries all the same.