BANGKOK – The Thai military is in the midst of a full-bore “pivot” of its own towards China, to the detriment of our long-time Western allies.
This has been particularly obvious in the realm of procurement, with Thai generals eyeing more Chinese military hardware in recent years, beginning with submarines. Now there is talk about replacing US-made battle tanks and with Chinese models, and we might even see a Sino-Thai joint venture involving the manufacture of weapons here.
This dramatic shift in allegiances is taking place under the military-led government that came to power in the 2014 coup and, as such, will never completely be regarded as legitimate. Ruling by a dictatorial interim constitution, it is exempt from any meaningful public debate over its decisions, including its procurements.
In Thailand for now and the immediate future, the generals are the sole shapers of public policy, accountable to no one. This is hardly the case in most advanced countries, where military programs have some degree of civilian oversight to ensure they reflect the needs of the nation and are genuinely beneficial to long-term security.
Few Thais would suggest the country should be buying tanks and weaponry solely from the United States, but we do remain treaty allies with the US and it is widely accepted that such status should mean more than the paper bearing the treaty signatures.
Instead, Thailand’s decade of political instability has brought criticism from the West, prompting our indignant leaders to adjust policy according to immediate need while ignoring the historical benefits of existing security and defense arrangements and the long-term consequences of their actions.
The Chinese government, itself authoritarian, pays little heed to any of its trading partners’ proximity to democracy. Whether foreign leaders trade places by elections or by coups, Beijing will look beyond the politics to make the best of the economic outcome. From its perspective, betting on the Thai Army is a solid gamble, with a publicly endorsed draft constitution cementing the military’s supervisory role in politics for many years to come.
For Thailand, though, the tendency to put all our eggs in the Chinese basket has a worrying drawback. We’ve bought their military hardware before, but now we seem to be drifting into uncharted territory, the public uncertain whether the realignment with China or the individual purchases have been adequately assessed by all of the state agencies that should be involved as a matter of course. Have our security and diplomatic corps properly weighed this? Are they even allowed to comment?
This is not a matter of bartering rice. When it comes to weapons procurement and the sources – the foreign nations who benefit from our patronage and respond appreciatively – our country’s long-term security is at stake. Choosing the overseas vendor requires fundamental understanding of defense doctrine and after-sales commitments that bring together the armed forces of seller and buyer in a partnership of mutual trust and defense.
As a direct result of 13 years of political chaos and partisan violence that crippled the Thai economy, millions of citizens are willing to abide by military rule, the better to ignore the ideological gulf that still separates them from their countrymen. But do the generals understand that what’s good for the junta is not necessarily good for the country? To continue conceding to them carte blanche on how the country is governed invites disaster.
National defense and long-term security might not be subjects the average citizen can knowledgeably debate. Such matters are often best left to the experts. But when expertise is rendered in the service of the public, the public should at least have a say.