Review– Thailand: Shifting Ground between the US and a Rising China

Title: Thailand: Shifting Ground Between the US and a Rising China (Asian Arguments)
Author: Benjamin Zawacki
Paperback. Zed Books, London. 15 October, 2017

Over the past three years, as Thailand-United States relations soured following the May 2014 coup in Bangkok, many commentators argued that the Thai government was suddenly alienated from the United States and moving closer to China. Although the Obama administration had vowed to bolster diplomatic, strategic, and economic relations with Southeast Asian nations, as part of the pivot, or rebalance, after the coup it supposedly froze Thailand out, pushing Bangkok into the arms of Beijing. The Obama administration publicly chastised Thailand’s junta. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and other senior leaders openly courted Chinese diplomats, investors, and cultural figures following the coup. And, while the Donald J. Trump administration has made human rights a low priority in U.S. foreign policy, and hosted Prayuth for a visit in July, the Trump administration’s distrust of diplomacy, gutting of the State Department, and “America First” themes have not generally played well in Southeast Asia. The Trump administration’s harsh stance on trade, in particular, has opened the door for Asian nations, including Japan and China, to take the lead on trade issues; overall, the White House’s general disinterest in Thailand supposedly is leaving a gap that the kingdom could fill with closer economic and strategic links to Beijing.

The reality was always more nuanced. Thailand did not suddenly break from the United States after the 2014 coup or upon Trump’s inauguration, and China did not suddenly gain massive new influence in the kingdom in the 2010s. Even though the Obama administration imposed some congressionally-mandated sanctions on Thailand after the coup, and senior U.S. officials did offer public criticism and call for a restoration of electoral democracy, military to military relations had almost returned to normal even before Trump was inaugurated. After the 2014 coup, the U.S. and Thai militaries continued to hold the annual Cobra Gold exercises, though these exercises were downgraded in size. Thailand and the United States restored their strategic dialogue one year after the coup, and U.S. diplomats in 2016 sought ways to keep the U.S.-Thailand relationship on course.

More important, as Benjamin Zawacki reports in this timely new volume, the kingdom’s balancing act between giants actually goes back decades, and the United States did not lose out suddenly since 2014. Instead, Zawacki reports, Thailand, which has integrated ethnic Chinese better than most other Southeast Asian nations, and did not cut all links with Beijing even during the Cold War, has been moving toward China for over fifteen years. This is a process sped up since 2014. Still, Thailand will not be anyone’s puppet. It is a major economy, not Cambodia, a country totally dependent on Chinese aid and investment, and it still has many business, political, and military leaders who value the relationship with the United States and also value Thailand’s history as an independent country that was never colonized. Yet the influence of China, Thailand’s biggest trading partner, in the kingdom will likely grow in the coming decades, and the U.S.-Thai relationship that existed in the 1960s and 1970s will never return.

Thailand long has played a game of keeping its foreign relations on a keel between the two major regional powers. During the Cold War, it repeatedly explored and then built ties with China while developing and maintaining a treaty alliance with the United States and becoming reliant on U.S. military assistance and weaponry. Over decades, Bangkok has maintained this balance between Washington and Beijing more skillfully than any other nation in Southeast Asia, except perhaps Singapore; many other Southeast Asian states have tried and failed to match Thailand’s ability to court both the two giants. Zawacki also shows that, since the early 2000s, when Beijing has gained influence in the kingdom, it is not necessarily due to skillful diplomacy by China, but just as often to mistakes and general indifference from the United States – particularly from U.S. leaders in Washington, who often have been out of touch with the input of their ambassadors in Bangkok. These U.S. mistakes have sped up recently, costing the United States ties with elite Thai opinion leaders and especially with military generals, men who still desire U.S. technology but are far less interested in rhetorical support from U.S. leaders than their predecessors in the Royal Thai Army were.

Zawacki, who has worked in Bangkok for a range of organizations including Amnesty International, offers insightful historical analysis, based on a wealth of other secondary sources and his own extensive interviews. His work is skillful and readable even to a non-specialist. In his first section, focused on the period before Thaksin Shinawatra became prime minister, Zawacki highlights several key moments that demonstrate how various administrations in Bangkok capably managed both major powers. During the Cold War, Thai military leaders, and the Thai royal family, ultimately created a vision of the monarchy and Thai army as the critical regional ally against communism. U.S. policy-makers largely bought this argument, which was bolstered by the Royal Thai Army’s willingness to send Thai forces to fight in Vietnam and in parts of Laos. Formal ties between Bangkok and Beijing were frosty at the height of the Vietnam War, and Thai governments discriminated against Sino-Thais and cracked down on Thais who promoted pro-Beijing and pro-communist ideologies. But Thai leaders quietly maintained lines to Beijing even as the Cold War grew hotter in Asia. Thai leaders reached out to Beijing, Zawacki notes, at the Bandung Conference, and visited Beijing on several occasions before the Sarit Thanarat administration. Although the Sarit Thanarat administration moved Bangkok more clearly toward the United States, creating what Zawacki calls probably the high point of the U.S.-Thai alliance, the U.S. dominance of the relationship, and the shipping of Thai troops to Vietnam, soured many Thais on an overweening partner.

The U.S. failure to win in Vietnam also made Thais question the bilateral relationship. The combination of U.S. failure in the Vietnam War, some Thais’ feeling of being dominated by the United States, and consistent U.S. support for Thai authoritarianism, helped build support within Thailand for the pro-democracy and anti-military movement. As Zawacki notes, by the early 1970s, “Having seemingly chosen the wrong patron [the United States, which lost the Vietnam War], Thailand’s military was at a loss to explain what the country, as opposed to itself, had gained” from that war. It was clear what the generals had gained – a vast wealth of arms, close links with the United States, and U.S. support for a series of authoritarian-royalist military governments. What Thais had gained from allying with the United States was less clear.

By as early as 1969, Thailand was broaching links with China, and after Nixon’s trip to China, Thai –China relations began to fully blossom. Thailand’s links with China would grow somewhat stronger in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, as the end of the Vietnam War changed the regional landscape. Thai companies – particularly CP Group – became major early investors in China as Deng Xiaoping began to open up China’s economy. CP and other Thai companies then leveraged these investments to build relations between top Thai and Chinese political leaders. Meanwhile, the Sino-Thai community, which had played a prominent role in business in Bangkok but had been hesitant about broadcasting their Chinese ancestry, began to openly display pride in its cultural heritage, and to advertise its Chinese background to boost trade connections and make deals in China.

In addition, well before the Obama and Trump administrations, Zawacki shows, America’s Thailand policy suffered from a general disinterest and lack of decisiveness. This drift became particularly apparent after the end of the Vietnam War, when Southeast Asia was relegated to the back bench of U.S. policy, and the United States became consumed by its own domestic politics. Thai policy-makers complained about a lack of U.S. knowledge of the kingdom during the 1980s, the 1990s, and the 2000s. They still are: Zawacki closes his book in part with quotes from former prime minister Abhisit Vejajiva, who complains of a U.S. policy drift toward Thailand in the 2010s, echoing the concerns of past decades.

Zawacki particularly illustrates this disconnect and unwise policy-making in the 1980s. Even when the Thai economy was booming in the 1980s, during the long era of Prem Tinsulanond-led governments, the Ronald Reagan administration and Congress alienated Thais, despite having skilled U.S. diplomats in Bangkok. U.S. policy at that time lacked flexibility, a common problem in dealing with the kingdom, and one that Zawacki believes was further exposed in the 2000 and 2010s. A protectionist 1985 U.S. food security act undermined the terms of trade for Thai rice and other agricultural commodities. The Reagan administration revoked trade privileges for China on Reagan’s final day in office, Zawacki notes – even though the Prem government had made important trade concessions to the United States that U.S. lawmakers had demanded. Both Congress and the executive branch just seemed to regard Thailand as an afterthought, particularly when compared to the Philippines, another U.S. treaty ally, and other important U.S. partners in the region.

Yet China’s ability to gain at the United States’ expense in Thailand during the 1980s and 1990s was constrained by several factors. China’s own domestic turmoil, following the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, hurt its ability to project power even in its near neighborhood. China’s economy was rattled, and it was cautious about pushing closer strategic and even trade ties with other Asian nations. In 1989 China still did not have diplomatic ties with many of its neighbors, and it could not provide the level of aid, investment, and military support to Thailand that the United States could. This was a far cry from China today, where Beijing is engaged in a soft power offensive across Asia, Beijing has become a leading donor, and Xi Jinping gave a speech to the 19th Party Congress last September in which he explicitly called for China to serve as a model to other developing nations, and to wield growing regional and global influence.

China just was not in a position, until the early 2000s, to engage with Thailand on a level similar to that of the United States. Still, during the Asian financial crisis, which began in Bangkok, China began to demonstrate that it would play a larger regional role. It promised not to devalue its currency during the height of the crisis, even as most other Asian nations were seeing devaluations. Chinese leaders publicly touted this decision; the choice not to devalue ultimately was not that essential to keeping the crisis from getting worse, but Southeast Asian nations praised Beijing for its position. In addition, perceptions that the crisis was handled poorly and dogmatically by the International Monetary Fund and major Western nations, including prominently the United States, further opened the door for China to make diplomatic inroads in Southeast Asia. The U.S. handling of the crisis also helped lead to the downfall of Thailand’s Democrat Party, which was portrayed by Thaksin Shinawatra and his supporters as being responsible for unpopular crisis-era policies negotiated that the Democrat government implemented with the support of the IMF and leading Western nations.

By the early 2000s, China’s economy, military, and diplomatic influence had grown significantly, and the country’s leadership had become much more confident. Its diplomats had become more skillful regionally and globally, and Beijing was beginning to launch a soft power charm offensive of funding for educational institutions, cultural institutions, think-tanks, and other institutions throughout Asia. This charm offensive eventually would also include expanding Chinese state media efforts into many parts of Asia, growing investment by Chinese state firms in Thailand and other countries in the region, and, in recent years, Beijing’s plans to support the creation of a major new infrastructure initiative throughout Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Eurasia. Now, in fact, China is, as Zawacki notes, impacting Thailand in a broad way geographically, on a level that no outside power has done since the United States in the Vietnam War; China is investing in and building physical links through many parts of the kingdom.

The Thaksin Shinawatra administration that took office in 2001, and the military governments that repeatedly ousted Thaksinite governments, provided an opportunity for China to engage with Thailand at a high level throughout the 2000s and 2010s — and to ultimately challenge the United States as the major external power in the kingdom. Thaksin’s ascent caught some U.S. policy-makers by surprise, though it should not have, and they too often had weak relations with his first government, despite having a highly-skilled U.S. ambassador in Bangkok. Over the past fifteen years, Zawacki notes, U.S. opinion leaders have mostly cultivated links with Thai politicians from the Democrat Party, the traditional political elites in Thailand, even though the Democrats have proven woeful in defeating Thaksinite parties at the ballot box and have a base only in the south and parts of Bangkok. In not building links with leaders of Thaksin’s party, and then condemning Thaksin’s liberalism, Zawacki believes. U.S. officials often allowed China to build its own close network of contacts with the Shinawatras and their allies.

Thaksin saw China a major counterweight to the United States, an important business ally, and a power that would not criticize his illiberal democratic style, which was evident even before he was elected in 2001, and became central how he operated as prime minister and, later, as power behind the party. Indeed, Zawacki notes that Thaksin’s administration was so focused on building closer economic links with Beijing that it proposed a free trade agreement with China only two months after Thaksin took office as prime minister in 2001. During his campaign in 2000 and 2001 Thaksin had prominently highlighted his own Sino-Thai background, and presented himself as an important interlocutor between large Sino-Thai run companies in the kingdom and China itself, which would be a huge source of opportunity for Sino-Thai firms as a consumer market and trading partner. This presentation undoubtedly helped him win support from some important sectors of the business community, which he overlaid on top of his regional base in the north and northeast, and his populist policies, which had an allure to working class Thais across the kingdom.

China cultivated Thaksin and many of his closest allies. Meanwhile, as Zawacki notes, U.S. officials who criticized Thaksin for his bloody, often lawless war on drugs, and for his mishandling of the growing insurgency in the southernmost provinces, did not reckon with the fact that the anti-drug campaign was relatively popular among Thais, and that Thaksin remained more popular than the Democrats, despite his disinterest in the rule of law. This is a problem now repeated in the Philippines, where diplomats struggle with how to handle a popular leader implementing brutal policies that happen to be popular with many of the country’s voters. For their part, Thaksin and his ministers praised China’s non-interference approach to the drug war, and Thaksin publicly highlighted his Sino-Thai background on visits to China.

When not criticizing Thaksin’s approach to the drug war, the George W. Bush administration mostly ignored Southeast Asia, other than issues related to the war on terror. To be fair, the Bush White House designated Thailand as a major non-NATO ally, largely in return for Thailand’s commitment to sending some Thai forces to the Iraq war. And yet the Bush administration still focused nearly all of its high-level engagement with Bangkok on counterterrorism. As the Bush administration paid less attention to Southeast Asia, Chinese officials and diplomats stepped into the breach, becoming the dominant external players at ASEAN meetings, beginning to drive regional trade talks, boosting aid to the region’s poorer nations, and slowly and quietly building up China’s military assets in the South China Sea and other parts of the region. The general unpopularity of the Bush administration’s war on terror complicated efforts toward a U.S-Thailand bilateral free trade agreement, which was eventually scrapped after large anti-FTA protests in cities in Thailand.

The intervening military/Democrat governments that have ruled Thailand in the periods, since 2001, when Thaksin himself or pro-Thaksin leaders were ousted, generally maintained this growing preference for China. China did not anticipate the 2006 coup, Zawacki notes, but U.S. ambassador Ralph Boyce did not rule it out in the months before the putsch. Boyce in fact was prescient about its possibility. Still, China maintained solid relations with the interim military government, and built even stronger links to Bangkok after a pro-Thaksin party won the 2007 elections. The Bush administration stuck to its focus on counterterrorism, and also ignored the regional institutions that Thailand cared about – and that China increasingly cultivated. The United States did not sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with ASEAN, which Beijing had signed thirty years before, and often did not send senior officials to ASEAN meetings. (Under President Barack Obama, the United States signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with ASEAN.) When U.S. officials came to ASEAN meetings, they often used the events to talk about issues related to broader Asian security, but not about issues critical to ASEAN, like Southeast Asia’s growing economic integration. As Zawacki notes, ties between Washington and the important royal palace in Bangkok continued to wither as well.

When the Abhisit government took office in December 2008, another of the military or Democrat governments that served interludes between Thaksinite rule, it opened multiple new trade offices in Shanghai, engaged in intensive negotiations with China over expanding exports of Thai rice to China, and continued to expand Thailand’s military ties to China, including increasingly buying arms from China. (By the time of Abhisit’s government, the United States had already fallen behind China as a trading partner with Thailand as well. ) Abhisit had warmer ties with the United States than his predecessors in the 2000s, in some part because U.S. officials were able to trade on their historic links to the Democrat Party. But the brutal crackdown by Thai forces on protestors in Bangkok in 2010 made it impossible for U.S. officials to avoid criticizing the Royal Thai Army and the Abhisit government, but U.S. officials largely restrained themselves from any serious condemnation, allowing the Democrat/military narrative of the crackdown to take root in Thailand, and alienating many pro-Thaksin supporters without fully pleasing Thailand’s army leaders. China abstained from criticism of the crackdown, winning further plaudits from the generals.

The Barack Obama administration came into office, in 2009, intending to move U.S. Asia policy in a different direction from that of its predecessor. It eventually committed to giving Asian leaders the “face time” desired, by sending senior U.S. officials to ASEAN summits and other important meetings in the region. It developed its strategy of the “pivot,” or rebalance, which was designed to bolster U.S. ties to the region, and to demonstrate that Asia would now be at the center of U.S. foreign policy. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, a regional free trade deal, was a linchpin of this strategy.

But in its early days, the Obama administration was consumed by the global financial crisis, which not only caused deep pain in the United States economy but also called into question whether U.S.-style capitalism was really a more effective model than Chinese-style authoritarian developmental capitalism. In addition, much of the strategy of the rebalance was not seen to completion, including the TPP; Thailand was not a member of the TPP, but it was surely watching closely to see whether the United States could pass its signature Pacific trade initiative. And, after the 2014 coup, U.S.-Thailand relations deteriorated further, as detailed above.

When Donald Trump was inaugurated, made clear that his administration would not make human rights a focus, and quickly reached out to authoritarian or pseudo-authoritarian Southeast Asian leaders including Prayuth, Malaysia’s Najib tun Razak, and the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte, among others. Prayuth and his allies clearly have been pleased by Trump’s disinterest in rights promotion, as have other Asian leaders including Duterte and Cambodia’s Hun Sen. But as Zawacki has written, by focusing on sovereignty and noninterference, Trump is offering Southeast Asia a message little different from that of Chinese leaders – but without the smooth diplomacy, increasing amounts of aid, and interest in regional trade integration that Beijing promises.

Now, in an era in which Thailand wants to engage even more with Beijing, Chinese direct investment is becoming critical to the kingdom’s economy, China has the capacity to be a regional hegemon, and the United States is turning increasingly isolationist, Beijing has an even greater opportunity in the kingdom. Thailand’s increasingly close relationship with China is important because it may signal the future direction of other Southeast Asian nations, who are dealing with a similar regional economic and security environment as Bangkok – and may even offer a foretaste of how countries in other parts of the world respond to a power shift from Washington to Beijing.

Still, whether the United States’ mistakes have hurt it with the broader Thai population — which itself has been at odds with the Thai elites who have often made policy and now increasingly are reversing Thailand’s democratic reforms — remains an open question. While denying that Thailand will ever become anyone’s client state again, Zawacki believes that Thailand has now moved clearly into China’s geopolitical orbit — that both “reds” and “yellows” support closer ties with China and are wary of relations with the United States. Such wariness will only be hardened by a U.S. government seen as uninterested in anything other than military might, and which publicly preaches an “America First” doctrine and threatens trade actions against Asian nations running trade surpluses with the United States. The Trump administration further offers no message of rights and democracy that might differentiate the United States from China as an external actor, and yet the United States is unable to match China’s diplomacy, aid, and trade with the kingdom.

Perhaps Zawacki is right that Thailand has moved into China’s orbit, and this trajectory is unlikely to change. But it is still possible that, if Thailand ever were to return to real democracy, there might be space for a renewed U.S.-Thailand relationship based partly on democratic values, and that some elected Thai leaders might be more cautious than the generals in accepting greater aid and diplomatic support from Beijing. Still, even if Thailand had an elected government again, that government would presumably be dominated by some Thaksinite party, and even then the United States would be at some disadvantage, given its weak links to Thaksin and his network.

What’s more, even a future democratic Thailand would probably still face major economic and security challenges, from the ongoing insurgency in the Thai south to the question of royal succession and the future of the monarchy to the country’s continuing weak economic performance, which has left it in a classic middle-income trap. These challenges together have, in combination with years of political warfare in Thailand, bred a permanent crisis mentality among many Thai opinion leaders, including those who want to see Thailand return to electoral democracy. Many of these electoral democrats would be happy enough for Thailand to return to a kind of illiberal majoritarianism, instead of junta rule. They believe that an elected strongman is the only way to move the country out of the middle-income trap, find a solution for the south, and counterbalance the power of the monarchy.

However, Zawacki notes, for U.S. officials to play the “democracy” card in some future democratic Thailand, they must be much more skillful in utilizing it. First, they must decide that promoting democracy and rights is an important way to differentiate the United States’ role in Asia from that of China. Then, instead of simply lecturing Thais, he believes, U.S. diplomats must “convince and demonstrate that doing so [upholding democratic norms and institutions ] is in their interest” – that it is in the interest of Thai opinion leaders across the spectrum from red to yellow. He notes that former U.S. ambassador to Thailand Ralph Boyce, who was ambassador during the 2006 coup and had a long career in Thailand, was one of the best U.S. diplomats at doing this type of convincing. Boyce, Zawacki believes, was one of the best at achieving the fine balance between maintaining adherence to democratic principles, including warning the Thais that the U.S. would cut off military assistance if they launched a coup, and exercising what Zawacki calls prudence – recognizing that he cannot completely alienate the Thais, and that he must try to work with Thai leaders and apply pressure for democratic change. This is an approach he praises. Zawacki writes, “The United States cannot persist, in the recent words of an American official, to “’simply expect more of the Thais”’ than other crisis-prone countries.” In other words, Washington is unwise to expect Thai leaders, who feel besieged by all manners of crisis, to simply accept that they should place much emphasis on process, laws, and institutions at a time when the kingdom seems so threatened by its own domestic problems. Zawacki is, however, doubtful that the U.S. will exercise its influence in Thailand more skillfully in the future, or that U.S. power in the kingdom will ever reach its former heights.

Reviewed by Joshua Kurlantzick
Joshua Kurlantzick is senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). He is the author, most recently, of A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA


  1. Really interesting post, i’m gonna check out the book. I’m curious to see where the influence of this 2 countries are gonna play in Thailand in the future.

  2. Good review, spoiled slightly by the reviewers (all to common) fault of interchangeable use of disinterested and uninterested. The two have very different meanings, but that aside it’s a succinct and informative piece of writing. As someone who lives in the Kingdom, and who is penning this comment from within a military base, where l teach, it saddens me to have to concur with the author. Thailand is most unlikely to ever reach developed nation status, the demographics, political economy and most importantly the Thai mindset render this optimistic outcome highly improbable.

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