Tokyo Report

What Does Thailand’s New Era of Uncertainty Mean for Japan?

The country’s changing political landscape raises several important questions for relations.

What Does Thailand’s New Era of Uncertainty Mean for Japan?
Credit: Flickr/Prachatai

The era of Thailand’s late King Bhumibol Adulyadej officially ended with the royal cremation being organized late last month. The country has now entered a new phase under the reign of King Vajiralongkorn, Bhumibol’s son.

But the controversies surrounding the new king seem to suggest political uncertainties awaiting the country. That is true not only in the domestic arena, but in foreign policy as well. One of the key relationships in this regard is Thailand’s relations with Japan.

Since the death of King Bhumibol in October 2016, Thailand’s partners and allies have readjusted their policy to cope with new realities inside the country. China has further strengthened its ties with the Thai junta through vigorous economic and military activities. Meanwhile, the United States, under President Donald Trump, rolled out a red carpet welcoming Thai Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-o-cha at the White House in October. The fact that the world’s most powerful nation legitimized the Thai military government overwhelmingly boosted the confidence of the regime in Bangkok.

Japan is now recalculating its strategy vis-à-vis Thailand. Since the coup of 2014, despite worrying about the spiraling political conflict in Thailand, Japan has continued to engage with the political elites in Bangkok. From a geopolitical viewpoint, the need to guard Japan’s interests and to compete with China explains Japan’s recently proactive policy towards Thailand.

Up to the year 2015, Japan was Thailand’s second largest importer and third largest exporter. As Thailand has been drawn more into the Chinese orbit, Japan has proposed a myriad of investment projects to win over the Thai junta. To counter the proposed Chinese rail project, Japan has offered the Thai government 170 billion yen ($1.5 billion) in loans for a similar railway scheme.

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In February this year, Japan and Thailand signed a deal to expand collaboration in the development of small and medium-size enterprises. The signing went ahead although the political situation in Thailand had not improved and the junta had again postponed the date of elections.

In the realm of political cooperation, the political-military talks between Thailand and Japan, held since 1998, have been cemented, especially as disputes among regional states have sporadically erupted to disturb regional security, including the conflict in the South China Sea.

Japan is monitoring closely the political-security ties between Thailand and China, which have also been rapidly upgraded over the years. Since the early 1980s, Thailand has purchased armaments and military-related equipment under this partnership at ‘friendship prices.’ Sino-Thai military links have also strengthened in recent years, especially following the coup, as evidenced by the growing number of interactions from exercises to even defense industry collaboration.

It is no surprise, then, that Japan has also been looking to develop its ties with Thailand on the defense front as well. In June 2016, Japan’s then-Defense Minister Nakatani Gen visited Thailand and initiated several substantive advances for bilateral ties, mainly in terms of exchanges, exercises, and training. These included establishing staff talks between the Royal Thai Army and the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force; dispatching observers from the Thai army to Japan’s Nankai Rescue exercise for the first time; and conducting a multilateral engagement under the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus).

Bilateral talks also touched upon other more ambitious aspects of military-to-military relations, such as defense industry cooperation and potential transfers of defense equipment. Thailand has expressed interest in specific equipment like the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force’s P-1 patrol aircraft and US-2 large amphibious rescue aircraft.

Returning to Thai politics, there is still no sign of the military’s willingness to step down. The royal transition has left a power vacuum in the Thai political domain. The military is not certain whether the new king will be well received by the Thai public, and is therefore searching every possible way to entrench itself in politics. But this could also mean that democracy may not be restored soon. This less-than-democratic situation in Thailand has opened a space for countries like Japan to sharpen its strategy to reap benefits.

There are growing calls for Japan to sustain its already robust economic tempo in Southeast Asia to counter China’s growing domination. In January 2017, Prime Minister Abe paid visits to the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Australia. Although Thailand was not included in his trip, the objective of the visit was clear—to play an engaging regional role, to counteract rising Chinese influence, and to lessen anxieties about declining US influence.

Apparently, Japan has chosen to follow in the footsteps of China in endorsing the Thai military regime, which may not help improve the political crisis in Thailand in the long run. Although Japan has flirted with a values-oriented foreign policy such as the Arc of Freedom and Prosperity PM Abe promoted in his first premiership, it has now embraced a pragmatic approach that focuses on Japan’s interests and avoids the risk of trying to influence political developments in the country.

As a part of such pragmatic approach, Japan is taking advantage from the ties between the monarchies of the two countries. Under Bhumibol, the relations between the Thai royal court and the Japanese imperial family were intimate. Japan wishes to maintain such close relationship even after Bhumibol has passed away.

In March, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited Thailand to pay respect to the grand coffin of Bhumibol. They also held a private discussion with Thailand’s new king, during which, as the Japanese Imperial Household Agency described, Vajiralongkorn treated the emperor and empress “exceptionally” as his honored guest. After the royal audience, King Vajiralongkorn was seen bowing deeply toward the emperor and empress as their car pulled away from the entrance of the royal residence.

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Thailand is an important partner of Japan in the context of regional politics in Southeast Asia. Successfully maintaining its interests in Thailand will allow Japan to position itself more strategically in the region too.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.