While the recent military coup in Thailand has drawn much of the world’s attention to the military junta’s suppression of democracy and human rights, it also has far-reaching geopolitical implications for the whole of Southeast Asia.
At the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit in Singapore two weeks ago, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was uncharacteristically blunt when speaking about the situation in Thailand, calling on the junta to release detainees, end the censorship of the media and to “immediately hold general elections.” His comments came a day after coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha had laid out his roadmap for political reform, with elections “within 15 months.”
Earlier, a spokesperson for the US State Department had declared that it would use “every political lever, economic lever where applicable” to pressure the military regime to return Thailand to democratic rule.
Thailand has long enjoyed close relations with the United States. During the Cold War it was one of the staunchest US allies in Southeast Asia. But many Thai royalists now feel that the US has abandoned them.
After Kristie Kenney, the US Ambassador to Thailand, criticized the coup, a social media campaign among Thai royalists began – calling for the ambassador to be recalled to Washington.
Khunying Songsuda Yodmani, daughter of former pro-US military dictator Thanom Kittikachorn, also blasted the United States for “meddling” in Thailand’s affairs and called on the US State Department to “respect its allies and treat them as equals rather than its colonies.”
The souring of relations between Thailand’s royalist establishment and the United States dates back to 2012, when President Obama visited Thailand and expressed strong support for the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. It appeared that the United States had shifted its support away from the Palace–military alliance, which has long dominated the country’s politics, to the Thaksin camp.
Last month’s coup therefore represents a slap in the face for the US.
A rocky period in Thai–US relations might seem of little consequence were it not for the escalating tensions between the US, China and other Southeast Asian nations over China’s increasingly assertive actions in the South China Sea.
At precisely the moment that the US wants Asean to present a united front, Thailand’s royalist establishment now appears to be looking to play the “China card” as a rebuff to the United States. Were Thailand, under its new military regime, to shift its strategic allegiance this would have region-wide implications. But would the monarchy–military alliance abandon its US patrons after 60 years? And would it abandon them for China?
While it is true that Thailand has longstanding military, diplomatic, educational and cultural ties with the US, historically the Thais have been willing to radically switch foreign policy allegiances in times of crisis.
In the second half of the 19th century, Thailand ended its centuries-old tributary relationship with imperial China and accepted the hegemony of the rising British Empire. Under the republican-minded prime minister Field Marshal Phibunsongkhram, following Japan’s invasion of Thailand in December 1941, the government switched Thailand’s allegiance to the Japanese — an ill-fated decision, as it turned out.
Thailand’s Princesses Sirindhorn and Chulabhorn – both of whom are believed to have supported the royalist protesters wanting to oust the Yingluck government –have long been cultivating close relations with China. Both visit China regularly.
As Geoff Wade points out, since the 2006 coup, links between the Thai and Chinese have “burgeoned,”including military links.
Thailand’s military leadership visited Beijing between 11-13 June to consult with their Chinese counterparts on “closer cooperation in military affairs, training, and weaponry development.” According to the conservative Thai newspaper Naew Na, sources in the Ministry of Defense noted that, “China regarded Thailand’s political problems as an internal issue, and that China would not interfere.” And, at a meeting with Chinese businesses and investors on June 6, coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha announced that Thailand was now a “partner of China at every level.”
For China’s part, given its deteriorating relations with Vietnam and the warming of US relations with Myanmar, a closer military relationship with Thailand would seem an attractive option. The official Chinese Communist Party newspaper, the People’s Daily, recently appeared to obliquely express support for the new regime, claiming that “Western-style democracy” had led Thailand astray.
Does China have enough confidence in Thailand’s ultra-royalist regime to bet that it will survive in the medium-to-long term? China would be conscious of the uncertainty surrounding the imminent royal succession. Ironically, a democratic, pro-Thaksin government might offer the Chinese a safer bet. Thaksin has also spoken in the past of his close relations with the Chinese leadership.
Presumably the US and Europe will continue to ratchet up the pressure on the junta, including perhaps even sanctions. One could imagine how much stronger this pressure would be if the junta looked to be “going over” to China, given the stakes involved in East Asia’s regional security.
If, having been censured by the US and other Western countries, the military regime does try to cultivate China’s support, Thailand may also find itself isolated within Southeast Asia – which is increasingly alarmed by China’s actions in the South China Sea. Thailand’s military regime faces a tough choice and the stakes are now higher than ever for Thailand’s royalist establishment.
Patrick Jory is Senior Lecturer in Southeast Asian History at the University of Queensland. This first appeared in the East Asia Forum.