America’s Biggest Southeast Asian Ally Is Drifting Toward China

Thailand has been slipping into Beijing's orbit for decades. It's time for Trump to make a counter-offer.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in 2014.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in 2014.

When Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha visits the White House on Oct. 3, North Korea will top the agenda. Thailand, a U.S. treaty ally with modest economic links to Pyongyang, will be asked to help press international efforts to defang the aspiring nuclear power.

A major reason for Thailand’s ready and reliable support is that, given the United States and China largely agree on North Korea in public, Bangkok is not being forced to choose between the two global powers. Yet plenty of potential conflicts could force Thailand to side with one over the other — and the odds don’t favor Washington. The Trump administration needs to focus on Beijing’s growing power in the country and begin responding before its ally slips permanently into China’s orbit.

The prevailing view is that China began making inroads in Thailand after Prayuth staged a coup in 2014. The United States suspended military assistance, canceled a series of visits, and downgraded its level of engagement. In fact, China has been methodically overtaking the United States for two decades. A dogmatic U.S. response to the region’s financial crisis in 1997 presaged its fall from first to third on Thailand’s list of trading partners a decade later. China has replaced the United States at the top, and its foreign direct investment grew from 1 percent of Thailand’s total in 2006 to 15 percent by 2016. This was second to Japan and two slots ahead of the United States.

In recent months, Donald Trump’s listing of Thailand as among 16 nations with which the United States endures a trade imbalance speaks to a recent history of American neglect. The president’s reckless dumping of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the Thais were close to joining, has forfeited Asia’s economic future to China’s 16-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

While Washington continually points to annual Cobra Gold exercises as evidence of deep “military-to-military” relations, the 35-year history of the drills betrays inertia over initiative. Meanwhile, the first Sino-Thai naval exercises were held in the Andaman Sea in 2004 and in the Gulf of Thailand in 2005, becoming a regular series of “Strike” drills between the two countries. Strike 2007 was the first joint exercises with any nation involving China’s special forces; Strike 2008 marked the first time they trained with foreign troops abroad. Blue Strike maritime drills commenced in 2010, and the first Sino-Thai air force exercises, Falcon Strike, took place in 2015. Bangkok proposed building a Chinese weapons and maintenance center in Thailand in 2016 and this year purchased the first of three Chinese submarines.

That China’s gains have come at U.S. expense is clear, but does a zero-sum dynamic reminiscent of the Cold War still matter in 2017?

Given Thailand’s critical position, the answer is undoubtedly yes. Thailand separates the Strait of Malacca from the South China Sea. Through the strait passes one-third of global trade andnearly a third of all oil and liquefied natural gas — and even higher shares of what China exports and consumes.

The South China Sea hosts competing territorial claims among an expansionist China and five nations in maritime Southeast Asia. The sea’s northernmost point is Taiwan. If either the South China Sea and/or Taiwan triggered a crisis or conflict, China’s ability to move ships and personnel, commodities and supplies, could be hindered by its dependency on the Strait of Malacca. The U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet not only patrols the contentious sea and keeps watch on Taiwan but has the capability to close off the strait.

Thailand is not a claimant in the South China Sea and has consistently refused to side with its neighbors, pledging a neutrality that is welcomed by China. Thailand has also been a proactive adherent to Beijing’s “One China” policy. Most importantly, its narrow Kra Isthmus separates the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea on the east from waters on the west: the Andaman Sea, Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea. A canal across the isthmus would render ancillary the Strait of Malacca.

Following two years of renewed Chinese interest, Prayuth remarked in January 2016 that a canal should be debated by future governments. But with the junta’s grip on power both strong and popular, the project could well be sped up. The chair of a new Thai Canal Association — already cooperating with researchers at Peking University — is a former army chief and was secretary-general to Thailand’s military prime minister in 2007. He is also the secretary-general of a foundation named after another ex-army chief and former prime minister, Prem Tinsulanonda, and runs the association out of its offices. Critically, both retired premiers are senior members of the Thai king’s Privy Council; the project would require a nod from the palace.

The new association claims to have 200,000 local signatures in support of a canal, but as shown by Prayuth’s decision in July to approve by decree an unpopular Sino-Thai high-speed rail, domestic opinion will make little difference. The rail line is part of a larger design running south from China’s Yunnan province, intersecting the canal before continuing to Singapore at the entrance/exit the Strait of Malacca.

These projects come as China begins to implement its Belt and Road Initiative. With a land-based “belt” west of China and a southern maritime “road” hugging the western Pacific and Indian oceans through Southeast and South Asia to the Red Sea, Thailand sits in a pivotal position for these plans. A new Joint Action Plan on Thailand-China Strategic Cooperation, approved in August, specifically referenced the initiative amid 20 areas of mutual interest. In contrast, the U.S.-Thailand Strategic Dialogue in July had no grand vision to inform it, nor did it produce any plan of action.

Prayuth’s decree on the high-speed rail not only set a precedent but revealed more subtle Chinese influence. The “China model” of authoritarian capitalism has all but replaced democracy in Thailand, as well as eroded “U.S. values” of human rights and the rule of law. A prohibition on political gatherings remains in place nearly 41 months after the coup, and elections are routinely dismissed as untimely. Military justice has expanded, and a close watch is kept over the press. Yet few Thais seem to notice or care, as the Chinese ideal of government has been embraced across all parties, factions, and political interest groups for more than a decade.

While Trump generally shares this ambivalence toward democratic ideals, Beijing’s exploitation of this in the service of geopolitics should convince him that principles are also pragmatic. Offering an alternative to illiberal governance and convincing Thailand that it is in its interests would be a practical as well as ideological victory.

North Korea may be the crisis of the moment, but it’s just a warmup when it comes to resolving Washington’s issues with Bangkok. After two decades of U.S. distraction and drift, China is the only game in town.

Photo credit: Wang Zhao-Pool/Getty Images


Benjamin Zawacki is the author of Thailand: Shifting Ground Between the US and a Rising China

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