Thai-US Relations in the Spotlight

Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai is not regarded to have a tendency to create headlines. Yet this week, the longtime diplomat found himself in the spotlight after an epic gaffe.

The United States, Don said, had informed Thailand of its intentions regarding Iran one day before the strike on Soleimani.

Surprising remarks, to be sure, given that not even America’s closest allies had been informed; even Boris Johnson reportedly responded with a single four-letter expletive when told after the strike had become a fait accompli. Social media erupted in spectacular fashion, questioning whether what Don said was true and his motives.

The Foreign Ministry was quickly forced to deny that the US had given Thailand any advance notice, stating that the foreign minister was “misinformed”. Quite damning, to say the least, and an explanation that requires further discussion; who mis-briefed Don, and how could the foreign minister be so confused about an important factor in the nation’s relationship with a global superpower?

But that is beside the point. I think that it is fruitful to delve a little into why Don said what he did, puzzling as it may be. What could possibly have been his motivation?

National War College professor Zachary Abuza recently wrote a very insightful piece on the current state of US-Thai security relations. In it, he concluded that despite Thailand being designated as a major non-NATO ally, the two countries’ interests have increasingly diverged; Washington sees China as its primary threat, whereas the current Thai government simply does not and views China as a benign hegemonic power. “American and Thai strategic concerns are sharply out of alignment,” he wrote. “Thailand is no longer a key partner for advancing U.S. interests in the region, especially vis-à-vis China.”

But, at the same time, the need to keep up appearances remains, as Abuza notes, whether through weapons purchases, joint military training (even if scaled back) or support for the vision of the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’. Even while Bangkok does not necessarily view Beijing with apprehension, there is still an element of distrust.

And so the balancing act continues. I wrote about this last year; states in East Asia have long existed in overlapping hierarchies, and they continue to hedge between multiple superpowers. Thailand continues to speak of its status as America’s oldest ally in Asia, even while Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha hailed China as “Thailand’s number one partner.”

Thus it would appear to me that the likeliest explanation for why Don felt the need to say that the US had informed Thailand of its Soleimani plans was because of his own priority in playing up the external appearance that Thailand continues to be a close partner of the US in Asia. To be informed of such plans, after all, would signify special status, and it had borderline plausibility given that Iran-linked groups have conducted violent activity in Thailand in the past.

This, of course, does not mean that it was appropriate for Don to give such a statement, and it represents at best a clumsy attempt at diplomatic maneuvering. But regardless, Don’s gaffe points to a larger picture: Thailand has increasingly aligned itself with China, but its unwillingness to totally bandwagon with Beijing means that it must cling to the US as the only primary means of balancing.

(Cover image credits)






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