What’s behind the tight Thailand-US embrace?
The United States appears to be going all-out to get Thailand on board, ostensibly in its efforts to contain China. Visits to Bangkok over the past few months by senior officials from Washington point to sudden warming in bilateral relations after a few years of indifference.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken concluded his visit on July 10 with the signing of a joint communique on strategic alliance and partnership with Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai, to highlight their strong commitment to bilateral cooperation.
The so-called “strategic alliance and partnership” would encompass economic revitalization, defense, security and intelligence cooperation, advancement of public health, people-to-people collaboration, innovation, and environmental sustainability, according to the joint communique.
Blinken was forced to cancel his scheduled visit to Thailand last December after some of his aides tested positive for COVID-19. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was in Bangkok on June 12-13 to strengthen the military alliance between the two countries.
Less than a week before Blinken’s visit, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi had visited Bangkok to underline the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership between China and Thailand.
Diplomatically, the strategic partnership is a higher level of relations between countries. Thailand has elevated the status of bilateral ties with China since 2012. China and Thailand are close like a family, Wang Yi said when he met Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha on July 5.
Washington has considered Bangkok as its treaty ally since the 1954 Manila Pact of the former Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. In 2003, the US designated Thailand as a major non-NATO ally, conferring a variety of military and financial advantages to the country when Washington needed Bangkok on board for its war against terror.
The visits of the two top diplomats of the rival superpowers were not far apart from one another and they point to the strategic importance of Thailand in the power tussle, said Ornthicha Duangratana, a lecturer at Thammasat University’s Pridi Banomyong International College (PBIC).
“Thailand has a long history of relations with the US, but there had been some drifting apart as Washington was focusing more on countries in the region that had a stronger stance against China, and also due to the backsliding in Thailand’s democratic credentials after the 2014 coup,” she told Thai PBS World in an interview via email.
China emerged as a key factor in relations between Thailand and the US only recently when the White House under president Barack Obama cold-shouldered the government formed after the military coup, she said. “Therefore, during the junta-led administration, Thailand did not have much of an option but to lean more towards China.”
“This, of course, coincided with China’s growing influence across the region as seen in its BRI vision and its assertiveness in the South China Sea, with Thailand not being one of the claimant states but only a part of ASEAN,” Ornthicha added. BRI stands for Belt and Road Initiative, which is an ambitious outreach by Chinese President Xi Jinping to create infrastructure and economic connectivity around the world.
Relations with the US improved during the Donald Trump administration, who preferred to overlook Thailand’s democratic deficit, she said.
Thailand as a medium-sized country has engaged in pragmatic bamboo diplomacy, keeping itself flexible to adjust to the changing situations in global geopolitics for national survival over the long term. The popular metaphor is: a bamboo that bends can withstand strong winds.
The US was regarded by the Thai elite as the prime source of ideology, security, military alliance, and development strategy, said Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Asian Studies Prof Ukrist Pathmanand.
“China was in the equation as Thailand sometimes also needed it to counterbalance others,” he told Thai PBS World.
The US and Thailand signed a number of treaties, including the 1954 Manila Pact, the 1962 Thanat-Rusk Communique, and the 1966 Treaty of Amity and Economic Relations to guarantee safety and the promise of development against the backdrop of the Communist threat. China initially was seen as a part of that security concern.
Thailand played the China card after US relations with Beijing improved in the early 1970s. Thailand got closer to China when the Bangkok elite saw the immediate threat of a Vietnamese expansion to Cambodia in the late 1970s, Ukrist said.
Thailand’s close engagement with China at present is mainly motivated by the economic dividend, as China offers a huge market and is a major source of capital and technology. China has become Thailand’s biggest trade partner and major foreign investor — it was the top investor before COVID-19 — while the Thai military has purchased many more weapons, including armored vehicles, tanks and submarine from Beijing since 1987, he said.
While Thailand has been running after China for a high-speed railway project, purchases of the controversial Sinovac vaccine and the foundering submarine deal have dealt blows to the otherwise smooth trajectory of bilateral relations, according to PBIC’s Ornthicha.
The railway project had been stalled, which had led to a lot of pressure from China to move it forward. The submarine deal is stuck in an impasse as Thailand refuses to back down on its demand for a German engine — as specified in the initial contract — which China is unable to procure due to a ban imposed by Berlin.
Also, tourism from China is of great importance to the Thai economy, because of the huge number of visitors from there. But China’s strict COVID-19 controls on travel by its citizens have impacted Thailand, she said. These factors go alongside the brazenness with which China is building infrastructure, notably hydropower projects, in the upper Mekong, she added.
With the more engaging stance of the US lately, Thailand seems to be happy to move into the American embrace, especially as a counter to the growing pressures from China, said Ornthicha.
Thailand remains important to the US from a geostrategic perspective, as the country sits at the center of mainland Southeast Asia, where most of the countries in this subregion tilt towards China in terms of economics, politics and security, Chulalongkorn University’s Ukrist said.
“The recent deal between China and Cambodia on the Ream naval port would have rung the alarm bells for the US to boost security cooperation with Thailand,” he said.
In this connection, the Thai Air Force has sought approval for procuring eight US-made F-35 sophisticated jet fighters to improve the country’s air defense capability, while Washington rarely approves the sale of its advanced military technology to countries that have strong connections with China or Russia.
On the economic front, Thailand in May joined negotiations for the establishment of the US-initiated Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, although the Prayut government was reportedly reluctant to join the group.
Thailand and the US would be celebrating the 190th anniversary of diplomatic relations in 2023, an association going back to the Treaty of Amity and Commerce signed in 1833. The US is still one of the largest export markets for Thailand, accounting for more than US$47 billion last year. Foreign direct investment from the US was the third highest, behind Japan and Singapore, contributing $17.5 to Thailand last year.
By Thai PBS World’s Regional Desk