BANGKOK – Global strategic and economic giants intersected in Bangkok early last week, when within hours of the departure of US President Barack Obama, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabaoa arrived. The first has been re-elected for another four years, while the latter was on his way out after a decade of leadership. It was not a coincidence that Obama and Wen were wooing Thailand, which occupies a strategic hub in mainland Southeast Asia.
The two leaders had little time to make their presence felt. It is difficult to avoid the comparison of the two high-level visits. The US came in with demands and visions, while China came with offers and action plans. Strategy for strategy, dollar for dollar, it seemed China came out on top. Thai public opinion polls also showed that the public generally felt warmer towards the Thai-Chinese friendship and Wen’s visit than it did about Thai-US relations. Wen has been in Thailand three times before but never on a state visit liked this—arranged after the conclusion of the National Party Congress in Beijing last week.
It was clear Thailand was feeling US pressure to give in on key issues such as joining the Proliferation Strategic Initiative (PSI) and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), and US access to Thailand’s U-Tapao Airbase for providing emergency humanitarian and disaster assistance. These three conditions were a prerequisite for Obama’s visit. Kudos must be given to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s brother, Thaksin, who has been active behind the scenes since July to ensure that Obama made a stopover, rain or shine.
After all, Obama’s visit is being considered as a mark of approval of sorts for Thaksin’s long-held self-aggrandizement, to which the US is willing to play. After all, he and his Pheu Thai Party won the election and brought stability to Thailand over the past 15 months. When Thaksin was prime minister he wanted to trade off Thai participation in the PSI for more US concessions, but it did not work.
This time he guided through the decision to join the TPP, which was initially opposed by the Ministry of Commerce. The decision was essentially a tactical and necessary move to ensure a smooth presidential visit. The TPP is a free trade agreement that includes 11 countries on both side of the Pacific, including the US, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore and Malaysia.
It is doubtful that future negotiations will yield any results given the bitter experience of the failed Thai-US free trade agreement that took place between 2003 and 2005. Thailand and Asean strongly support a different, newly-launched regional trading bloc, known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). If it is successful, RCEP will be a bigger bloc than the TPP.
To be fair, the best thing was the Thai-US joint vision statement that outlines the future of the region’s oldest but ailing alliance. The four-point vision would reinvigorate and make full use of the Thai-US military alliance. This would inevitably lead to the revision and updating of the archaic Thanat-Rush agreement of 1962.
This 50-year-old defense treaty was concluded at the time when the US was fighting communism and the former Soviet-Union. For decades, Thailand and the US shared common security threats in the region. However, the new strategic landscape locally has rendered the whole spirit of this past cooperation obsolete. The rising powers of China and India now dominate headlines and policy considerations in Southeast Asia.
Wen’s visit demonstrated the growing interdependency of China’s economic power with the rest of mainland Southeast Asia, which covers southern China, Burma, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand with a population far exceeding those of the Asean countries.
Unlike the Western colonial powers, who used guns, boats and cannons during past centuries of conquests, China is using high-speed railway links as an instrument to extend its influence southward. By 2018, if all goes well, all major cities in China will be connected to Kunming, which will link to Vientiane, Nong Khai, Bangkok, Sugai Kolok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore through 230 km/hour high speed trains.
As such, the most often question asked today is how can Thailand play both the US and China to preserve and promote its national interests? Almost all public opinion in recent days pointed in one direction—Thailand must remain neutral. But none explained what neutrality means in an age of heightened competition and US-China rivalry.
Even senior officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were unable to be more specific when pressed to explain what this Thai neutrality means in practice and how it can be deployed within the present strategic environment. In the past, when Thailand said it was neutral it meant that it did not choose sides. That was obvious as Thailand was the only country in the region that was free and independent, giving it a status that set it apart.
Other counties just gained independence and some remained closed societies due to their political systems. Thailand held all the cards and could stay on the fence as long as it wanted, without siding with anyone. However, this strategy is now proving useless in this time of fast-moving political events, aided by online social media and a 24-hour information society. Timing is everything now.
For instance, Thailand’s decision to back Palestinian statehood at the UN was kept under wraps for nine months even though the decision was affirmed very early on. But none of the officials, both at desk and middle levels, wanted to confirm a decision when senior officials refused to do so.
When Thailand made the decision, it was among the very last to do so publicly and therefore had no diplomatic value—just liked the decision to sign the PSI, which came after nine years. Then Thailand was the 102nd country to sign. It could have obtained a much greater advantage if it had acceded to PSI in 2003, when it could have been on the first 24 signatories.
Thai officials must now get rid of this old mindset of “neutrality,” which equates to “playing it safe” or worse, “taking no responsibility.” From now on, Thailand must take the bull by the horns. It can say a clear “yes” or “no” on issues concerning national interests and those of its allies. To be neutral in a rapidly shifting strategic order is to understand its limits and potential. Thailand is an open and dynamic society and shares common perspectives across multiple issues with countries around the world. With some humility, Thailand can implement this course very well.
But truth be told, Yinluck and her trusted lieutenant Foreign Minister Surapong Tohvijakchaikul are clueless. They have failed to articulate Thailand’s ideal regional order and were unable to optimally strengthen the country’s position and bargaining power. In a globalized world, ambiguity is the worse diplomatic policy as it cannot help in any strategic planning.
Just look around, our neighbors are getting bolder. Burma has said “no” to China and the US before. Naypyidaw has gained respect this way. Vietnam and the Philippines are also no longer content to play second fiddle in the region. Thailand can be neutral by being frank with friends and foes, and it should understand and state its national interests clearly. – Kavi Chongkittavorn assistant group editor of Nation Media Groupand a long-time observer of Southeast Asia and China.