BANGKOK – Thailand now stands on a tightrope among the major powers. Recently, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev made a high-profile visit to Bangkok, hosted by the coup-appointed government of Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha. Medvedev’s visit suggests that Thailand is now strategically courting authoritarian major powers, namely Russia and China, in defiance of Western criticism of Bangkok’s coup and military regime.
At the same time, the Medvedev visit, along with recent high-level engagements between Thailand and China, indicates that the military-led government is being expedient. It is courting China and Russia but also waiting to re-engage with the West at the earliest opportunity. As is often the case in diplomacy and power politics, Chan-o-cha’s government seeks a balance somewhere in between.
In Russia’s foreign policy calculus, Medvedev’s visit to Bangkok, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, is part of a broader ‘pivot to Asia’, echoing the United States’ geostrategy under President Barack Obama. Traditionally a Eurasian power that straddles eastern Europe and central Asia, under President Vladimir Putin post-Soviet Russia is reclaiming its lost glory and territory.
But Russian assertiveness has come at a high price. Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and ongoing battle for the eastern parts of Ukraine has incurred Western rebuke and punitive economic sanctions. A debilitated commodities-based Russian economy has turned to China, both North and South Korea, and even Japan for succour. While Japan is beholden to its treaty alliance with the United States, the Chinese leadership has been accommodating to Russia. Moscow–Beijing relations are arguably the warmest since the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960–80s.
Southeast Asia was always part of the rhetoric of Russian foreign policy, but now it is becoming more of a reality. Apart from Vietnam, Moscow’s traditional ally from the Cold War period, the Russian leadership is eyeing Thailand and other ASEAN countries. Russia is desperate to ride on the coattails of Asia’s rise in the 21st century, and Southeast Asia is front and centre of this ascendancy. For its part, Thailand is instrumental in Russia’s geostrategic outlook because of its critical mass and location.
This unfolding great-power realignment on the global stage bears far-reaching ramifications, pitting China and Russia as authoritarian heavyweights on the one hand and Western countries — alongside certain Asian democracies, such as Japan — on the other. Thailand, a solid middle power when it has its act together and a fledgling developing country when it does not, is caught in the middle.
This means that whichever administration is in office in Bangkok — whether it is the previous governments of Thaksin Shinawatra’s political machinery, the opposing tenure of the Democrat Party or military rule — Thailand must embrace China’s rise and welcome Russia’s overtures. China is the new game in the regional neighbourhood, and Russia provides Bangkok with a useful hedge in the regional geopolitical mix. What’s more, China’s ties with Thailand date back many centuries, while Russia proved a foul-weather friend in Thailand’s hour of need in the 1890–1900s when European imperialists pressed against Bangkok from all directions.
But there is also a measure of what might be called Thailand’s ‘pivot towards external authoritarianism’ at work. Under a more democratically legitimate government in Bangkok, led by either the Thaksin-controlled parties or the Democrat Party, Thailand’s balancing act among the major powers would be more even-keeled. Western countries and Japan would woo Bangkok all the more in the face of aggressive Chinese and Russian suitors.
But domestic authoritarianism reinforces Thailand’s turn towards external authoritarian regimes that would do business with Bangkok’s military-led government. Tough responses to the coup and to domestic authoritarian rule from Japan and the West may well hold as long as Bangkok is bereft of a democratically legitimate government based on popular sovereignty. While this continues, Thailand’s internal authoritarian rule, and its pursuit of receptive and accommodating authoritarian regimes abroad, will become more entrenched.
If the military-led government does not last long and Thailand returns to the global community of democracies, then Bangkok is likely to realign itself in the major-power mix. So Thailand’s foreign policy depends on how long the interim coup period lasts: the longer the coup, the greater the risk that Thai authoritarianism will align with outside authoritarian powers for the longer term.
Just two decades ago, it appeared that Thailand’s place in the global community of open societies, market-based economies and democratic polities was firmly secured. This is no longer the case. But even if the military remains ensconced in power in Bangkok for several years, it is also difficult to imagine Thailand turning into a fully-fledged member of the undemocratic, authoritarian club for good.
The big issue is whether Thailand’s democratisation and its civil society have come far enough to withstand military-led rule. Although authoritarianism has made a remarkable resurgence, a pluralistic culture — nurtured in the 1970–90s and reinforced by international norms and media technology — may have strong enough roots to preserve an open society and democratic polity. The ultimate verdict will become apparent over the next few years. And it will most likely be a messy and prolonged affair.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is Associate Professor and Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.
A version of this article was first published in The Bangkok Post.