“We are living in a world that is not an extension of the past,” a Japanese policy statement recently declared. “The novel coronavirus infection,” it observes, “has transformed the world,” while “Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has shaken the very foundations of the international order.”
This is a common theme from Japan’s policymakers. Its prime minister, Kishida Fumio, who often warns that “Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow,” recently touted Japan’s stability and reliability “in an era of geopolitical uncertainty with supply chain disruptions and drastic shifts in energy and other resources.” A ruling party heavyweight, Kono Taro, has stated that “Deglobalization is already happening…We will pay higher prices, but that’s the price we have to pay to keep our security.”
The acceleration of deglobalization, the decoupling of the authoritarian and democratic worlds, the end of the era of low prices: we are, indeed, living in a world that is not an extension of the past. To predict in 2019 that in by 2022, the world would look remarkably different — millions dead from a global pandemic, China’s borders sealed tight from the outside world, the biggest European war in a generation — would likely elicit an examination of mental acuity.
But such is reality. Thailand, regardless of what it does, cannot escape the consequences of our deglobalizing world. As US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen emphasizes the need for “friendshoring” to “trusted countries,” while still-bewildered global elites at Davos discussed “re-shoring,” “self-sufficiency” and “resilience,” an export-oriented country like Thailand cannot help but wonder about the possible ramifications.
The question, now, is this: can Thailand adjust to this uncertain new world? The modus operandi of Thailand’s foreign policy is often described as that of a “bamboo bending in the wind.” The problem today, however, is that it has become harder to read the direction of the wind. In a world of intensifying great power competition, are Thailand’s policymakers skillful enough to play both sides? And if that is no longer viable, which side will Thailand pick?