Thailand's Bamboo Diplomacy Blows in the Wind

The controversial case of suspected Russian gun runner Viktor Bout is unending. Bout has been locked in a Thai jail since 2008 after US agents posing as rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia lured him to Bangkok, allegedly with the promise of an arms sale.

The Americans want Bout for what he knows, and the Russians want him, presumably for what they don't want the Americans to know – about Russian activity in global arms sales. A continuing series of judicial "technicalities" has kept the 43-year-old former Soviet Air Force pilot where he is as the two major powers struggle over his fate.

The case is unending simply because the issue has been highly politicised and profoundly entangled in the country's complicated domestic politics. It also demonstrates that Thailand has implemented a flawed foreign policy, and that the much celebrated Thai diplomacy of bending with the prevailing wind has come under heavy stress.

The Old Guard in the Foreign Ministry like to believe that Thailand nowadays continues to exercise its shrewd diplomacy, playing one power against the other in order to maintain a high degree of autonomy in the country's foreign affairs, as it did so successfully during the colonial period.

But in reality, the Thai government has under intense pressure from the US, which has accused Bout of executing arms deals with many militant groups around the world, including the FARC. Washington has classified the FARC as a terrorist organisation, and thus demanded that Thailand extradite Bout to be prosecuted in the United States.

As it has turned out, Thailand seems to have lost much of its control over its foreign policy. The Thai Foreign Ministry in the past prided itself on a mastery of bamboo diplomacy: always solidly rooted but flexible enough to bend whichever way the wind blows in order to survive. More than mere pragmatism, as one American professor once said, this adage reflects "Thailand's long-cherished, philosophical approach to international relations."

Yet the current political crisis at home and the increased traditionalizing of the foreign ministry (apparently with a close associate of the right-wing conservatives now leading the agency) has in many ways compelled Thailand to tilt more toward the US, a policy that may not always serve the country's interests, but surely fulfils the interest of the traditional elites who have dominated the Foreign Ministry.

So far, both the Thai government and the aristocrats inside the foreign ministry have employed the same rhetoric when they explained the Bout case to the international community, the rhetoric of Thailand adhering to international laws and practices and of a true independence of its foreign policy which was supposedly free from outside interference.

At a deeper level however, Thailand's position vis-à-vis Bout and the country's relations with the US are inexorably interwoven. Thailand's policy toward the United States could be characterised by accommodation and appeasement. This is nothing new. During the Cold War, the United States succeeded in transforming Thailand into its own client state. Thailand was willing to formulate a pro-American, anti-Communist policy so as to prolong its despotic regime of the day.

The intimate link between the US and the traditional elite, in the military and in the Foreign Ministry, powerfully weakened the country's autonomous power in its foreign affairs. Today, America's overwhelming support for the traditional elite (against the pro-Thaksin factions) has put a heavy toll on the way the country has run its foreign relations. It is a quid pro quo game of diplomacy: The United States has backed the traditional elite who have in return become subservient to American foreign policy needs.

For the United States, the benefits of preserving the pro-establishment forces position and maintaining its close ties with the military and the foreign ministry aristocrats have been manifest. It permitted the bilateral relationship to become more predictable and less disruptive because of the elites' continued domination of political power and the foreign policy-making process. Governments may come and go, but the traditional elite represent a permanent feature of Thai politics.

The Bout case also reveals the fact that the usefulness of the bamboo policy may have actually ceased. Certainly, the domestic situation, which has opened up a space for the US to work closely with the aristocrats for the maintenance of Thailand's political status quo, has indeed minimized the degree of diplomatic pragmatism. As a result, the country's foreign policy has become less pragmatic, overlooking the implications of an overall geopolitical reality in which multipolarity has now defined the global system. Thailand needs to bear in mind the consequences of its decision in the Bout case on the country's relations with Russia and certain European countries.

For centuries the foreign ministry, dominated by the elite, had proved to be flexible, pragmatic and resilient against the altering balance of power. It also learned to be assertive if the situation permitted, and to be compliant when choices in foreign policy seemed to be inadequate. The principles of pragmatism and resilience were passed onto the subsequent generations of Thai diplomats. But pragmatism may now not serve any political advantage of those controlling the helm at the Foreign Ministry.

The continuing legal process over Bout should serve to remind Thai diplomats that the country's traditional quality of being able to bend with the wind and to withstand outside pressure, as well as not to allow a political agenda to taint its foreign policy, must be kept alive.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a former Thai diplomat, is the author of Reinventing Thailand: Thaksin and His Foreign Policy