Unsteady Thailand Between the U.S. and China

By Sonia Rothwell

The United States' decision in late 2011 to increase the pace of its strategic "refocus" towards Asia-Pacific means that for the first time since the end of the Cold War, Southeast Asia will become a theater in which an existing and rising power vie for regional hegemony. From the outset, the Obama presidency has signaled its intention to renew the United States' ties with its allies in Asia-Pacific. The switch follows decades of focus upon Europe, the Middle East and South Asia. Indeed, the continued draw-down of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan means that Washington's new Asia-Pacific policies can now take material shape. They will build on groundwork carried out since the final years of the Clinton presidency, where attempts were made to strengthen ties via regional military exercises, logistical support and intelligence sharing. Depending on whether or not the US is seen as a threat to the region or as a benevolent presence, we may see states there balance against one or other of the powers. We may even see them opt to bandwagon and join one or other of the rising powers of China, India and Indonesia.

One of the countries faced with this choice is Thailand - a close ally of China (it has a small but well-integrated Chinese minority), but also a nation which has cordial and well-established relations with the United States. Broadly, there are three main potential directions for Thailand's foreign policy: it could continue to enhance ties with China, rejuvenate close relations with the US, or it could court neither and attempt to create regional strategic alliances without committing itself in the long term. At the moment, it appears that Thailand is leaning towards China as a patron, for reasons which will be outlined later in this article.

Domestically, Thailand must also address and contain the growing threats to its internal security, not least that posed by the potential impact of the death of its long-serving octogenarian king, a uniting presence in an otherwise politically fractious country. Over the last decade, Thailand has faced a wide variety of threats from political (an estimated 18 coups since the end of the absolute monarchy and an increasingly agitated and politicized rural working class) to environmental (the devastating floods of 2011) as well as a lengthy insurgency in its ethnic-Malay Muslim southern states.

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Red shirt protests

Politically, much of the recent instability stems from the rule of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who, during his premiership, empowered Thailand's impoverished rural classes by - among other things - introducing universal health care and reducing rural poverty. However, he also suppressed the developing Thai media and was repeatedly the focus of corruption allegations. His overthrow by urban elites in 2006 caused anger among his impoverished core voters who felt their political voice was being rejected. Protests against Thaksin's removal continued sporadically until in 2009 a group of his supporters (known as ‘red shirts') descended on Bangkok protesting against the military government which had replaced him. The ensuing political violence in turn led to the cancellation of an ASEAN summit.

These events point to serious class-based tensions between urban and rural, as well as rich and poor Thais. Thailand (formerly Siam) was an absolute monarchy until the 1930s since when it has transitioned stutteringly towards democracy. Demonstrations by the middle classes in the early 1990s, followed by the intervention of the king, removed the 30-year old military regime and replaced it with a civilian government. Indeed, the monarchy still holds significant power within Thailand. Tightly-enforced lese-majesty laws ensure that it remains a central, respected part of political life. Recently, however, there has been criticism that such laws are being applied over-zealously, leading to complaints by international NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, as well as calls for the relaxation of such legislation.

Such developments are important for two reasons. First, the new government of Yingluck Shinawatra (sister to the exiled Thaksin) is at pains to prove its loyalty to the monarchy following criticism from royalists that the Thaksin administration was insufficiently loyal. Secondly, the current king, Bhumibol, is 84 years old and there are fears for the future influence of the monarchy given that the crown prince is said not to share his father's popularity. Bhumibol has been on the Thai throne for 66 years so his death has the potential to seriously impact on the stability of the country, especially considering the recent upsurge in political confidence among poorer Thais and persistent rumors of the return of Thaksin. Accordingly, encouragement of popular commitment to the monarchy may make the transition to a new ruler run more smoothly.

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Sonia Rothwell is a multimedia journalist who has previously worked for the BBC and ITN. She holds an MSc in International Security and Global Governance from the University of London.

This article was originally published on the International Relations and Security Network and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

(AP Photo)

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