Thailand is set to hold elections at the end of March, bringing an end to nearly five years of military rule. The U.S., which slashed military aid to the country following the 2014 coup, paired its diplomatic applause at the return of democracy with an expanded presence at this week’s annual Cobra Gold military exercises in Thailand. This has revived the question about whether the U.S. – now free from its half-hearted push to promote democracy in a country where, historically, unelected pillars of power steadily served U.S. strategic interests – will move decisively to arrest the more recent drift of its oldest ally in Asia toward China.
Yet, last week’s political earthquake in Bangkok demonstrated that Thailand is still mired in a prolonged transformation at home – one that has been intertwined with profound changes in the broader regional landscape since the end of the Cold War. China’s rise has both contributed to and benefitted from this transition. Over the same period, the U.S., swinging between alarm, incoherence and (more often than not) indifference, has seen its influence wane in Thailand, clouding the role of the strategically located country in U.S.-China competition. The deeper reality is that the strategic logic that bound the U.S. and Thailand so closely together during the 20th century has changed. China needs Thailand more than the U.S. does and has positioned itself to be a long-term partner accordingly. But this doesn’t mean the U.S. is at risk of “losing” Thailand altogether.
The King, the Military and U.S. Strategy
The United States helped solidify Thailand’s post-World War II power structure – a delicate balance between the monarchy, the military and the political class. During the war, Japan invaded Thailand and forced Bangkok to declare war on the U.S. But the U.S. quickly normalized relations with Thailand (which had been a formal U.S. ally since 1833) in 1946. That year also saw the teenage King Bhumibol Adulyadej ascend the throne that had, following decades of suppression by military governments and the mysterious death of his young brother, become bereft of power.
The U.S. saw a popular Thai monarchy as a bulwark against the tide of communism sweeping the region, so in the subsequent decades, Washington funneled aid and investment through the palace – and the network of Thai elites around it – to help cement the king’s power. At a time when royals around the globe were losing influence or facing abolishment, the king deftly pulled the Thai monarchy back from the precipice and restored its public reputation as the indispensable guardian of Thai culture, virtue and stability. At the same time, the U.S.-Thai military alliance blossomed. During the Vietnam War, in particular, Thailand served as an indispensable base for U.S. operations across Indochina and into southern China. The U.S. was singularly responsible for the modernization of the Thai military, whose influence gradually expanded into politics and commerce. Combined, the military’s guns and the monarchy’s ideological hold on the country kept Thailand’s own communist insurgency from taking the country the way of war-torn neighbors like Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar.
After Vietnam, however, the U.S.-Thai partnership became unmoored. And with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. learned to live with the region’s ostensibly communist states, including China, and its military footprint in Southeast Asia shrank dramatically. Following 9/11, U.S. attention to Thailand, along with the rest of the region, dissipated further.
Thailand, meanwhile, became focused on tapping into the latent economic dynamism of the newly stable, increasingly liberalized region. China was no longer considered an ideological threat, and Sino-Thai business elites, oppressed in Thailand in the early 20th century, were well-positioned to bridge Thai and Chinese business circles. (The ethnic Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia is by no means broadly supportive of the Communist Party of China or its geopolitical goals. In fact, many such families fled China to protect their wealth during waves of centralization and collectivization. But deep-rooted familial and business connections to the Mainland, particularly its prosperous southern coastal provinces, have persisted.) Many got fabulously rich, and with newfound wealth came political power. One such figure was a Chiang Mai-based telecommunications tycoon named Thaksin Shinawatra, who remains at the center of Thailand’s political turmoil today.
A Kingdom in Flux, an Opening for China?
One byproduct of Thailand’s boom years was that they exposed deep urban-rural divides. A watershed moment was the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which began when Thailand floated its currency, the baht. The collapse unleashed a wave of popular disillusionment with the way Bangkok-based elites had managed the economy. Frustration also mounted against the West for doing little to ease Thailand’s plight, particularly when the International Monetary Fund imposed strict rescue conditions. Thaksin capitalized on this popular sentiment, uniting the discontented rural parties and attracting support from the middle class to forge an unassailable political machine. In 2000, he was elected prime minister in a landslide, and in 2006, he became the first Thai prime minister to be re-elected.
Thaksin accelerated Thailand’s inevitable pivot to China. He transformed his country’s foreign ministry into something akin to a Thai chamber of commerce, promoted military leaders with close ties to Beijing, appointed a Cabinet that was over 50 percent ethnic Chinese, and positioned Thailand as a bridge between China and Southeast Asian states that were warier of China’s rise. Under Thaksin, bilateral trade with China exploded, and Thailand began turning to China to update its aging military arsenals.
But Thailand’s internal balance of power was thrown into disarray. As the ailing Bhumibol retreated from public life, with a son who could not fill his shoes, Thaksin was promoting loyalist generals and consolidating control over the military. He became too powerful for royalist elites, who ousted him in a 2006 military coup and two of his loyalists in judicial coups after democracy was restored in 2007. Thaksin’s supporters took to the streets in 2009 and 2010, shutting down central Bangkok for more than a month. The military responded ferociously, resulting in gun battles in the streets and much of the city center being burned. In 2012, a party loyal to Thaksin swept elections, but two years later the military took control again, ousting Thaksin’s sister (who was serving as a proxy for the self-exiled former prime minister) to get the Shinawatras out of the way ahead of the looming royal succession.
Bhumibol died in 2016, and though the past two years have been quiet, this week’s events demonstrated just how unsettled Thailand’s internal power structures remain. Last Friday, a party loyal to Thaksin announced that it would put forward Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya, the eldest daughter of the late Bhumibol, as its candidate for prime minister. This broke with nearly a century of precedent; Thai royals never jeopardize the monarchy’s public legitimacy by getting involved in the political fray. Under Bhumibol’s 70-year reign, the crown intervened in political affairs sparingly, and almost always to restore the balance between the three pillars of power. The princess’ move appeared to put the monarchy’s support squarely behind Thaksin, pitting the crown against the military-backed party led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha – the leader of the coup that ousted Thaksin. By Saturday, new King Maha Vajiralongkorn had publicly denounced his sister’s move, and the election commission has since ruled her ineligible to run. But the episode demonstrated that Thaksin is still an undeniable force (one now boasting a quasi-seal of royal approval) and that under the new king, the role and power of the monarchy is very much in doubt. In short, the internal battle for Thailand’s future isn’t over yet.
Is Thailand Really in Play?
Neither is the external battle for Thailand’s loyalties. In reality, though, it’s a battle that only one side is waging seriously, illustrated by the different responses the United States and China have had to Thailand’s two decades of internal upheaval. China has routinely made it clear that it will support whoever holds power in Thailand – and it has made good on its promise. The current junta, for example, has inked a number of high-profile weapons and Belt and Road Initiative-related deals with Beijing. And since the first coup, China has moved from Thailand’s third-largest trade partner to its first. It helps that, unlike other Southeast Asian states, Thailand doesn’t have any major territorial disputes with China (and the attendant political complications). As such, for Thai power brokers that want above all to manage internal strife without external interference, Beijing is seen largely as a benign neighbor.
Given Thailand’s strategic location, this may appear to be a problem for U.S. regional goals. Though not a South China Sea claimant, Thailand is near enough to the waters for its territory to support a range of operational needs in the area. Its proximity to the Strait of Malacca, again, gives it a role to play in any potential fight over chokepoints. Despite this, the U.S. reaction to Thailand’s political developments has verged on indifference – especially compared to its response to the political turmoil of allies like Egypt. After both military coups, the U.S. reflexively called for a return to democracy (which Thai royalist elites hear as a call for a return to Thaksin), cut military aid and scaled back joint military exercises. But lower-level military, intelligence and law enforcement cooperation continued largely unabated.
The United States’ apparent lack of concern that it might “lose” Thailand to China stems from two main factors. For one, the U.S. is in a position of considerable strength. It has footholds across the first island chain and Strait of Malacca, plus ample power projection assets capable of closing chokepoints from far-flung locations. China has neither the navy nor the regional footholds required to push back. China does not have the money to cultivate deep dependencies in Thailand or to turn BRI links in Thailand into a game-changing military logistics network. It would take decades of a thriving economy and military buildup to change this. China does not yet pose enough of a threat to compel the U.S., already overstretched globally, to start pouring resources into a marginally important regional player like Thailand.
Second, the U.S. knows that Thailand isn’t interested in playing a zero-sum game. Thailand is proudly one of just a few countries that was never colonized, and it has a long history of deftly playing outside powers off each other to maintain its freedom to handle internal affairs, and nothing about the current environment is compelling Bangkok to act any differently this time around. China doesn’t pose enough of a threat for Thailand to spurn Chinese money to please the U.S., and the U.S. will not antagonize Thailand enough to drive it into China’s arms. Even Thaksin’s outreach to China was motivated less by preference for China than by a desire to restore some balance in Thailand’s relationships. Meanwhile, there are many other countries with deep economic and military ties with Thailand, particularly Japan, who have played an outsize role in the country’s economic development since the 1980s. Bangkok has used these relationships to force Beijing to negotiate BRI deals on terms favorable to Thailand, in turn forcing China to consider partnering with its archival, Japan, on projects in the kingdom.
Still, the U.S. sees aspects of its Southeast Asia strategy at stake. Washington sees Thailand as a valuable partner on lower priority regional issues like anti-terrorism. The U.S. would prefer that Thailand’s military buildup proceed in a way that won’t present interoperability problems in the midst of a potential conflict in the distant future. And it’s concerned that Thailand will ignore its warnings about Chinese tech firm Huawei, potentially hamstringing bilateral military cooperation. But none of these will fundamentally alter Thailand’s strategic orientation. The big picture is this: China needs staunch allies, and Thailand isn’t going to become one. The U.S. has little reason to move beyond strategic indifference, giving Thailand room to navigate its changing internal and external environment as it sees fit.