Into the Era of Multipolarity: Thailand in the Balance

This is the third post in a multipart series analysing how the world is moving towards a multipolar era. Previously, the rise of China and the resurgence of Russia were discussed. In this post, we will analyse the position of Thailand in this transition.

This is not a post that will offer answers to how Thailand must act in the coming decades, for I am no foreign policy expert. However, as I have shown in the previous two posts, the world is clearly moving into an age with a multipolar international order, with the US declining in the world stage and China and Russia regaining their significance. Therefore, in this post, my goal is to illustrate Thailand’s history during previous eras with multipolar characteristics, and show how this might show the way for how Thailand can manage the transition from a unipolar to a multipolar world in the coming decades.

The Balancing Act

Seeking new allies: King Chulalongkorn and the Tsar of Russia

King Chulalongkorn, also known as King Rama V, is one of the most respected and celebrated of the King Chulalongkorn and the Tsar of RussiaThai kings. It is not difficult to see why. The King managed to preserve Thailand’s independence during the peak of the colonial era, which was no small feat as Burma and Indochina were gobbled by the British and French empires. Masterfully appeasing both the British and the French, while pursuing modernisation and greater ties with Europe to gain a more respected standing on the world stage, Siam was able to avoid colonisation, a fate that all its neighbours had to endure.

Plaek Phibulsongkram, the Prime Minister of Thailand during the Second World War, may be remembered less fondly in history. However, he also played a similar game of independence preservation, accepting the Japanese invasion of Thailand and becoming a respected, if not quite equal, ally of the Japanese and an Axis power. At the same time, however, the Thai ambassador to the United States refused to deliver the Thai declaration of war to the US, and Thailand managed to appease the US with genuine resistance efforts through the Free Thai movement. In this way, Thailand was able to mostly preserve its independence throughout WWII.

It is this ‘balancing act’- playing off great powers against one another to preserve national independence- that Thailand has historically been known for. How has it managed to do it twice, both during the colonial era and again during World War II? A reason for this is due to sheer luck in its geographical location, for Thailand is located in the heart of mainland Southeast Asia. The British and the French were willing to leave Thailand as a buffer state between the two empires, and the strategic position was too great a prize for both to leave to the other, ensuring Thailand’s neutrality. Another reason, as already mentioned, was the skilful leadership.

This balancing act has suffered, however, in the unipolar world that took shape in the postwar world. Thailand and the United States were not new friends. Rather, Thailand was the first Asian country to sign a treaty of alliance with the United States, with ties stretching back to 1818. Famously, King Mongkut of Thailand had offered to send elephants to breed in the United States, and President Abraham Lincoln politely declined. But where in the past the US was just another of the Western nations that Siam courted, once European power declined sharply after the war, the US became Thailand’s most important ally.  Thailand threw its lot in with the United States, embracing the umbrella of protection and the massive military funding that the US gave in its global fight against communism. Becoming a major non-NATO US ally, Thailand sent troops to participate in the Korean war, resisted communist insurrections and was home to many US bases during the Vietnam war.

This was a new trend for Thailand. In its long history, the global superpower used to be China, and Thailand served regular tribute to the Chinese emperors. Now, however, Maoist China had gone communist, while Thailand firmly remained in the camp of the free world, led by the US. Both realistic fears, underpinned by the domino theory, and public propaganda created decades of pro-US and anti-China public mood. Thailand had no real need to engage officially with China, and could stay in the shadow of the United States.

Sirin Phathanothai and Zhou Enlai

But ties with China did not completely disappear during the Mao years. A well known story is that of Sirin Phathanothai, the daughter of a Thai politician and journalist who was a close advisor to Plaek Phibulsongkram. Her father and Field Marshal Plaek had concluded that despite the overwhelming influence of the United States, China was still the historic great power in the region and one that Thailand could not ignore, and so strove to secretly restore relations; it was concluded that Sirin and her brother would be sent to live under the care of Premier Zhou Enlai, as a form of ‘human tribute’ that had been practiced in the past. Despite ups and downs, relations were gradually restored, with ‘ping pong diplomacy’ taking place and relations fully restored in 1975, with Thailand following the American lead in switching recognition of the Chinese state from Taiwan to the PRC.

Now, for the first time in decades, the scales are changing once again. China is back on the rise. How will Thailand cope?

After the Coup

In order to analyse Thailand’s standing in the international world order, we also have to take some time to briefly discuss its domestic affairs. In May 2014, Thai general Prayut Chan-ocha took power and overthrew the civilian government, earning harsh US rebukes and cold diplomatic ties. In the period before the Thai coup, the United States was widely seen not as an impartial spectator of the Thai political conflict of 2013-2014, but instead a supporter of the regime of Yingluck Shinawatra. The public opinion of the Bangkok middle class that had been so vehemently against Yingluck also turned against the United States, a stark difference from earlier periods when the Thai populace generally had pro-US feelings.

Li Keqiang and Prayuth Chan-ochaThailand’s foreign policy indeed changed after the coup. Whereas in the past the US and Thailand had a warm relationship, now Thailand began to gravitate not towards the West but instead towards China. Flights between Beijing and Bangkok from national leaders became frequent. I have discussed in detail the dynamics of Thailand’s foreign policy reorientation in this post; in the post, it is made clear that the US’s treatment of Thailand in the post-coup period has created an opening for China, and that this could impact long-term relations.

In the short term, however, it is important not to discuss the ramifications of the post-coup atmosphere in overblown terms. The United States still remains a close ally of Thailand, and military cooperation still continues. The values that the United States continues to claim to uphold, such as human rights and democracy, are still ones that resonate with a large sector of the Thai population.

Beyond the short term, however, the future of the US-Thai relations becomes less clear-cut. The China of today is not the China under Mao: it is a rich and powerful nation with a strong, stable government. Now it is a great power, and one that is right in Thailand’s neighbourhood; the United States, by comparison, seems distant. Logically, the immediate course of action would to be to acquiesce with China in all matters possible, for she is the more important power to court. But that would not please the United States by any means, and the US is still Thailand’s most important ally.

From the perspective of both China and the US, Thailand is a country in the heart of mainland Southeast Asia, an important jigsaw in the Southeast Asian puzzle that can hardly be ignored. And now, the post-coup atmosphere has given China a major opening to build closer ties to Thailand, a time where Thailand and the US have relatively distant relations and the country is open to a better relationship with another superpower. The question is, what will Thailand choose? Will Thailand let this temporary state of affairs become a status quo, or will Thailand return to the US fold?

It is a big dilemma indeed, and one that requires a very delicate balancing act.

A Brave New World

Some may choose to argue that it should not be a difficult act for Thailand to manage two great powers. After all, the world before 1945 was a multipolar world, with the British, the French, the US and other European colonial empires searching the globe for new territory. The difference, however, is that the current world is much more globalised than before. Thailand could live in relative isolation and self sufficiency until the French sailed their ships into Bangkok’s harbour. In modern times, everything is interconnected. Appeasement of great powers yield much more obvious economic and security benefits. Indeed, this is a unique situation that Thailand has never been in before.

With the cooling ties with the West, Thailand’s closer economic ties with China has already become very clear in the past year. As noted in The Diplomat:

Though the military has succeeded in stabilizing Thailand’s economy somewhat since coming to power, economic growth has been weak thus far and these woes could extend into 2015 if troubling trends like anemic domestic consumption and private investment continue. With the U.S cutting off military assistance to Thailand, and Europe suspending trade negotiations following the coup, the government has made strengthening ties with China – already Thailand’s largest trading partner – a top priority.

But for Thailand to become overtly dependent on China would make the country vulnerable to the whim of Chinese leaders and their own decisions, made in their own self-interest. The best choice that the current and future Thai governments can make, therefore, is to continue the ‘balancing act’: to appease both the US and China, but not align the country not too closely with either great power.

Thailand must also build relations with other major powers: the BRICs countries promises to become even greater economic powers in the future. India, South Africa, Brazil, Mexico, and Russia are more distant than China, but in this globalised era, it is crucial to court these countries and to recognise their importance.  In the meantime, Thailand should become a bigger player on the world stage in its own right; it is certainly capable of taking a greater leadership role in ASEAN. Even though Thailand has never been a true leader in all of Southeast Asia in its history, this increasingly interconnected world opens up new opportunities.

No one knows how the coming decades will turn out. And as I have mentioned before, I am no expert in foreign policy. However, since we do know the major trends in which global politics is heading, and we have an invaluable resource known as history to take inspiration from, it is far from unreasonable to look for clues in which Thailand can use to inform its policy choices.

One thing is clear, however. In this brave new multipolar world, the policies of the past will not be enough to serve Thailand. It will be exciting to watch this country, along with all the other countries of the world, navigate through the changes that are sure to come.

 

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