U.S.-China rivalry reignites as new Thai government finds its footing
BANGKOK, Thailand — China‘s navy quietly sailed into the shallow, energy-rich Gulf of Thailand earlier this month for Blue Strike 2023, a joint naval exercise to increase Beijing‘s influence with Thailand‘s newly elected, military-backed civilian government, which is also a strategic U.S. treaty ally.
A new government — and a new political era — are starting here with some familiar dynamics, as both China and the U.S. seek friends and influence as the civilian-led coalition government of Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin settles into power after a decade of military-dominance of the political scene.
Mr. Srettha is a wealthy real estate developer and ally of polarizing former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist billionaire who was driven from office — and eventually from the country — by a military-led coup in 2006. With the restoration of civilian rule, Mr. Thaksin ended a decade of self-exile to return home last month and face charges relating to his stormy tenure.
The new prime minister made his first political foray onto the international stage, addressing the U.N. General Assembly in New York Friday and making contacts with top U.S. officials along with representatives from Google, Microsoft, Tesla, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council.
The U.S. and China are eyeing the new administration and its views on international investment, tourism, trade, and weapons purchases. While Mr. Srettha himself is a fresh face on the scene, his unwieldy 11-party coalition controversially includes a strong, military-linked party while the biggest winner of this spring’s election, the progressive Move Forward Party, was relegated to heading the opposition.
The new government has made Thailand‘s straggling economy a top priority, meaning foreign markets and foreign investors will be courted assiduously.
“Thailand is like a sick person,” Mr. Srettha said on Sept. 11 in his first policy statement to Parliament. “Tourism and spending are recovering so slowly that there is the risk of economic recession.”
In a hunt for clues, Washington and Beijing are scrutinizing the Thai military’s Sept. 1 list of promotions, to see if there are any shifts in Thailand‘s attempt to balance its relations with the two superpowers. There are some signs the Biden administration will find some friends in high places.
“The selection of Gen. Charoenchai Hinthao as army commander was a big win for military officials closer to the U.S.,” Paul Chambers, Naresuan University lecturer in Southeast Asian affairs, said in an interview. “The same can be said for the choice of Royal Thai Armed Forces Commander Gen. Songwit Noonpakdi and new Air Force Commander [Air Chief Marshal] Panpakdee Pattanakul who favors U.S. F-16s and F-35s for Thailand.
“Only the Thai navy remains tilted toward China,” Mr. Chambers said.
The Pentagon is especially concerned about Bangkok‘s military support for U.S. security interests, amid rising clashes with China over territorial claims in the South China Sea and over the fate of Taiwan, which Beijing has vowed one day to bring under its control.
In 2003, then-President George W. Bush designated Thailand a “non-NATO treaty ally,” and the two nations’ militaries are closely linked after decades of training and experience.
But Mr. Xi’s government has been playing on fears in the region that the U.S. is trying to force East Asia’s smaller powers to choose sides in a new power game.
“Attempts to push for NATO-like [alliances] in the Asia-Pacific is a way of kidnapping regional countries and exaggerating conflicts and confrontations,” Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu warned in June. Those alliances will “plunge the Asia-Pacific into a whirlpool of disputes and conflicts.”
China wants “more fruitful cooperation between the two militaries, especially between the two armies,” Mr. Li said.
A former foreign minister, Kantathi Suphamongkhon, said, “Even though it is unlikely that we would see intentional U.S.-China military clashes in the region, conflicts may come about by accident when tensions are high.” He predicted the Srettha government, like others around the region, will try to avoid offending either superpower.
“Thailand will try to maintain good relations with Washington and Beijing as much as possible,” Mr. Kantathi said in an interview. “… The Srettha government will likely continue the balanced hedging policy between China and the United States because such a policy enhances Thai business interests.”
Avoiding a tilt
The new prime minister appears to agree.
The continuing military influence inside the new government could be a limiting factor on what the new prime minister can do. Mr. Srettha‘s predecessor, former Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, dominated the political scene here for nearly a decade after engineering another military coup in 2014. Mr. Prayuth did poorly in the May national election, but emerged with unexpected clout and leverage in the lengthy, contentious coalition talks that followed the vote.
“This is a coalition government comprising two main factions, one led by Thaksin Shinawatra and the other by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, so it is likely that the meddling through of balancing relations with China, and with the U.S.A., will likely continue,” another former foreign minister Kasit Piromya said in an interview.
Many here see the seemingly agreeable Mr. Srettha as Mr. Thaksin‘s puppet, but his experience among Bangkok‘s luxury real estate market and international businesses however may help him promote Thailand amid competition by other investment-friendly, dynamic Southeast Asian neighbors.
“The U.S. is paying more attention to Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Thailand is somewhat overlooked and ignored,” Mr. Kasit said.
“So it is up to the new Thai government to make itself heard.”
The good news for Washington, after decades of financial aid to Bangkok, is its favorable image among many Thai politicians.
“Not one Thai political party is anti-U.S.,” he said.
But China is not without assets in the wooing competition.
The Royal Thai Navy wants to purchase three Chinese submarines even though the U.S. is training Thai submariners.
China‘s Sept. 3-10 annual Blue Strike joint naval exercise with Thailand reportedly included more than 2,500 personnel from both countries, a Chinese submarine, an amphibious dock landing ship, guided-missile frigate, and a supply ship.