Thailand’s game of thrones returns. A political earthquake ripped through Thailand Friday, when Thai Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya, the eldest daughter of beloved late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, was announced as a prime minister candidate in Thailand’s first elections after five years of military rule. It’s a stunning development because Thai royals never put the monarchy’s legitimacy with the public at risk by openly getting involved in politics. More surprising, the princess is leading a party loyal to self-exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a royalist coup in 2006 (and whose sister, serving as a proxy prime minister, was ousted in 2014). Ubolratana will be pitted directly against the current prime minister and the leader of the 2014 coup, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha.
For nearly a century, Thailand has had a delicate balance of power between the military, the political class and the monarchy. Under the 70-year reign of King Bhumibol, the crown intervened in political affairs sparingly and almost always to restore this balance. Under the current and less popular King Maha Vajiralongkorn, the monarchy is evidently throwing its full weight behind Thaksin – who built an unassailable populist political machine in the 2000s – against the military and political factions that Bangkok-based elites had relied on to preserve the status quo. This scenario is what the two decades of the coups, political violence and maneuvers to keep Vajiralongkorn from the throne were intended to prevent. In the short term, this will probably prevent a return of the political chaos; a government led by a royal would be coup-proof. But with the monarchy putting Thailand’s core power structure in flux, the longer-term outlook is murkier. It’s equally hard to say how much Thai power struggles will ever matter to the broader geopolitical landscape. Oft-violent instability has kept Thailand inward-looking and prevented it from becoming a strong regional player in Southeast Asia, but to date, it hasn’t really altered its geopolitical orientation. Nonetheless, the intensifying U.S.-China competition over Southeast Asia will give Thailand greater significance, putting its internal battles in a withering spotlight.
The U.S.-Europe-China battle over tech continues. According to Politico, U.S. President Donald Trump is set to sign an executive order banning Chinese technology from U.S. wireless networks next week. This would be only a modest blow to Chinese telecom giant Huawei, which has effectively been locked out of the U.S. market for years already. The big blow will be if and when Washington bans U.S. firms from selling critical components such as microchips to Chinese firms. (When the U.S. briefly imposed such a ban on slightly smaller Chinese telecom giant ZTE last spring, it nearly killed the company.) Only then would we find out if there’s any merit to Huawei’s boasting about nearing self-sufficiency – or whether continued access to the European market would be enough to weather the U.S. offensive. A Handelsblatt report on Thursday claiming Germany’s Cabinet is leaning against a ban on Chinese tech, which elicited an alarmed response from the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and threats of “consequences” to U.S.-European relations, illustrates why Beijing is finding some hope in the West’s divides.
Does China have a breaking point? There are signs that China’s economic slowdown is beginning to translate into social unrest. The New York Times reported Thursday a surge of small-scale labor protests in China, and the China Labour Bulletin said it recorded 1,700 labor disputes last year, an increase of at least 500 over 2017. Notably, the Times reports that much of the recent unrest has been concentrated in export-dependent coastal provinces – those most vulnerable to the U.S. trade war and historically most threatening to the continued rule of the Chinese central government. Of course, this kind of data and reporting only tells us so much. Chinese figures are always hard to confirm, and changes in data from one year to the next could be influenced by a number of factors, including changes in the intensity of crackdowns and censorship. Nonetheless, we know that there’s a major slowdown in China. And we know that Beijing wants to put an untold number of unprofitable firms out of their misery. Job losses are inevitable, and workers are bound to get stiffed. What’s most important to watch for is signs of increased efforts to organize workers and anger directed at Beijing, not just deadbeat factory bosses.
Turkey considers its options in Syria. Speaking to Turkish media, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said plans to sabotage U.S.-Turkey relations have failed. He was referring, of course, to the Syrian Kurds, who have been at the center of tensions between Washington and Ankara for years. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey was ready to take over patrols in northern Syria but may have also expressed some hesitation about a full U.S. withdrawal when he called the U.S. decision to pull out of Iraq a mistake. It seems that Turkey wants more freedom to act in northern Syria, but only when it’s convenient for Ankara. The problem for Turkey is that the U.S. isn’t the only player there with which it must contend. During negotiations, Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the issue of the 20-year old Adana Accord, which governs the border between Turkey and Syria. Here, Putin’s intentions are fairly clear. The Adana Accord prevents Syria from harboring any members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a Kurdish group operating in Turkey, and limits Turkish intervention in Syria to 3 miles (5 kilometers) from the Syrian border. Putin is effectively telling Turkey that it’s obligated to get out of Syria, but Ankara still fears that withdrawing would give free rein to the Syrian Kurds. A U.S. withdrawal is still in Turkey’s interest, and it could happen fairly soon – the Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. is planning to pull all U.S. forces from Syria by the end of April – but it seems Ankara would prefer Washington to remain in the country temporarily while it solidifies its control of northern Syria.
- Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the U.S. has signaled that it intends to allow the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty to expire in 2021.
- South Korea and the U.S. have reportedly postponed an announcement on plans for their annual joint military exercises – which North Korea claims are impossible to distinguish from the beginning of an invasion – until after the second Trump-Kim summit at the end of February.
- U.S. energy giant ExxonMobil announced the discovery of a large, commercially viable oil reservoir in waters southwest of Cyprus. Turkey has threatened to respond to drilling in the area.
- Imagery published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies showed as many as 90 Chinese naval, coast guard and fishing vessels near Pag-asa Island, the Philippines’ largest holding in the Spratlys, ostensibly in response to Manila’s plans to resume work on a beaching ramp on the island.
- Italy’s population shrank by some 90,000 people in 2018, the fourth consecutive annual decline, because of continued drops in birth rates and a 3 percent increase in emigration, according to the national statistics office.
- German industrial output fell 0.4 percent in December, the fourth consecutive monthly decline, according to the Federal Statistics Office.
- The U.S. special representative for Iran announced that Washington was not planning to grant more oil or sanctions waivers for countries doing business with Iran.
- El Salvador’s president-elect will reassess the country’s relationship with China, according to an aide.
- Less than two days after France appeared ready to support a change to EU rules that would complicate the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project between Russia and Germany, Paris and Berlin reached an agreement that will not endanger the project.