Benjamin Zawacki on the Thailand-China-US Triangle

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Benjamin Zawacki on the Thailand-China-US Triangle

This week’s visit to Thailand by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has cast a spotlight on the country’s languishing treaty alliance with Washington.

Benjamin Zawacki on the Thailand-China-US Triangle

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai give a joint press conference in Bangkok, Thailand, July 10, 2022.

Credit: Twitter/Secretary Antony Blinken

This week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken paid an official visit to Bangkok, during which he and his Thai counterpart “committed to reinforcing and enhancing our strategic alliance and partnership.” The move comes after years of drift in U.S.-Thailand relations, and the rapidly growing influence of China, which has put Thailand once again at the center of the growing strategic competition in Asia.

The triangular relationship between Bangkok, Washington, and Beijing was documented in detail by Benjamin Zawacki in his 2017 book “Thailand: Shifting Ground Between the US and a Rising China,” which was published in a revised paperback edition last year.

Zawacki, a long-time resident of Thailand and analyst of the country’s politics, spoke to The Diplomat’s Southeast Asia Editor Sebastian Strangio about the state of the U.S.-Thai relationship, the Biden administration’s approach to Washington’s oldest Asian partnership, and whether Bangkok can maintain its current strategic balancing act in an era of increasing Sino-American competition.

In your book, you argued that, “Since at least the turn of the century, influence [in Thailand] has been declining for a geographically distant, politically distracted, and strategically drifting America. For a close and confident China, influence has been ample and growing rapidly.” Recently, some observers of Thai politics have argued that the country is beginning to tilt back toward the United States. How have you seen the situation change between the initial publication of your book in 2017 and the release of the revised edition?

Initially there was little change at all, but rather, as the title of the second edition’s new Afterword suggests, “The Drift Goes On.” The first edition came out a year after Trump was elected, and while it had implicitly anticipated a Clinton presidency and thus a potential second crack at the “pivot,” the book’s overall analysis and conclusions needed no immediate adjustment under the Trump administration.

Rather than reluctantly, if rightly, reengage with the Thai junta, Trump embraced it; rather than renew the bilateral and multilateral alliances with Thailand, he dismissed them – as was his wont, in both cases, around the world. Sending all the wrong signals, he also appointed a new CIA director who had cut her teeth on a U.S. torture (“black”) site in Thailand, and appointed as ambassador to the kingdom the first non-career diplomat in a half-century.

Credit was then briefly due for regional initiatives that featured Thailand to a greater degree than Trump’s predecessor had: the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy in 2019 and the Mekong-U.S. Partnership in 2020. Moreover, the impetus for these was key (and also contrasted with Obama): China finally being seen as the peer competitor it was rather than the cooperative partner America wished it would be.

Yet Trump’s staying power proved no greater than Obama’s, a reality that was capped off with the sending of a characteristically unknown and unqualified representative to the East Asia and ASEAN summits in 2019. For all of his differences in style, Trump was more of the same on substance. He left the alliance in as bad a shape as he found it – and the door to Chinese influence open just as wide.

How would you assess the current state of the U.S.-Thai alliance, after four years of Donald Trump? What is your view of the Biden administration’s approach toward Thailand so far?

Until very recently – including and especially just two days ago – Biden’s approach toward Thailand might almost have been called “strategic neglect.” While this would give it too much credit, in contrast to an Obama who forgot about Thailand and a Trump who couldn’t find it, Biden seemed to purposely fly right over it. After not so much as naming the country in his Interim National Security Strategic Guidance in March 2021, Biden sent his defense secretary to Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines in June 2021, then his vice president to two of the same three countries a month later. Only in between – and months into vaccine territory – did Biden fly COVID-19 jabs to Thailand, after having already done so elsewhere in the region.

And let us not forget that less than two weeks into his term, Biden was handed a silver-platter opportunity – such are crises – to assign much-needed new meaning to the U.S.-Thailand alliance, by initiating a swift and joint reaction to Myanmar’s military coup. Instead, he gave it a pass. China did not.

It is true that there has been a recent flurry of U.S. activity in Thailand, including Strategic Dialogue and Defense Strategic Talks in May, a visit by Defense Secretary Austin in June, and of course Secretary of State Blinken’s visit this past weekend. Yet, however promising and productive this may (or may not) eventually prove, it should still be seen for what it is right now: reactive, late, and limited.

Do you agree with the idea that Thailand’s conservative ruling elites are beginning to turn against China, and back toward the United States? Is the Thai “enthusiasm” for Beijing’s silk road initiatives that you identified in the introduction to the new edition of your book still operative? If not, what concerns or considerations have prompted opinions in Thailand to change?

I do not agree. What has turned is China’s foreign policy and posture, including in its near abroad. Beginning with and largely because of COVID-19, the Chinese have turned noticeably inward – necessarily at first, of course, but very much by choice and design for the past six months or so, as the rest of the world has slowly but surely begun to reopen – for business, travel, tourism, trade, meetings, and more. Coinciding with the pandemic in China has also been a host of other forces conspiring to trigger the country’s default setting of retrenchment. As of this month, President Xi’s “zero COVID” policy is as much about domestic power politics as it is about public health. Furthermore, externally, the war in Ukraine over recent months has caused additional stock-taking relative to China’s own territorial aspirations and their likely consequences.

To say that China has turned its back on Thailand’s conservative elites would overstate the situation, but the Thais have had no choice but to react and adapt to the changes. Part of this has been, per the questions above, an openness to recent U.S. initiatives. For where the changes in China have been most deeply felt in Thailand is in its coffers and pockets, with the pre-COVID-19 flood of Chinese tourists having been reduced to a trickle, and robust supply chains replaced with border closures. It is in this context that the Thais, against the express wishes of Beijing, recently signed on to Biden’s new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.

A backdrop and illustration of this new dynamic has been the “vaccine diplomacy” at play in Thailand for the past 18 months, in which China and the U.S. have basically acted true to form: the Chinese were first and gave more; the Americans were late and gave less, but gave better. It is not being lost on the Thais either that the mRNA vaccines are more effective than Sinovac, or that the Chinese refuse to import them.

Yet the key to all of this is the same caveat that applied to the previous discussion of America: it is far from certain that this is more than a brief departure from two decades of policy and practice.

What explains the slow (bordering on non-existent) progress of the Sino-Thai high-speed railway designed to link Bangkok to the new Laos-China rail line at Nong Khai-Vientiane?

Concerning China’s maritime “Silk Road” running through Thailand are two main points. First is that Thailand has never been overly invested in the “road,” as indeed only two projects are near-unanimously held by officials and analysts alike as falling solidly within its framework: the high-speed rail (HSR) and the roll-out of fifth generation (5G) mobile internet capacity by China’s Huawei Technologies.

Second, and related, is that from the Thai perspective, the silk road only makes sense – or does not make sense – economically. Thailand evaluates projects according to their economic viability and makes decisions on that basis. Yes, corruption plays a role – it is always part of the economic equation – and Thais are not unaware of Chinese geopolitical intentions, but their primary concern is economics.

This second point clearly explains both the 5G situation, which Thailand has embraced as a bargain with few alternatives, and the HSR delays, for the rail does not stand to yield appreciable economic results.

Of course, it doesn’t stand to yield them for China either, except that in contrast to Thailand, and in contrast to the silk road’s public relations, the Chinese do not devise or evaluate silk road projects in primarily, much less purely, economic terms. It is a geopolitical initiative and thus must pay geopolitical dividends. The economic side is important mostly in terms of getting other countries on-board.

The HSR is essentially a case of “highly questionable economic viability meets highly important geopolitical progress.” In view of China’s proven ability to play the long game, pre-COVID-19 the odds were overwhelmingly in its favor. They are less so now, but I still wouldn’t bet against it.

I’d like to conclude by asking you the notion of “bamboo diplomacy”: the idea that the Thais are expert at maintaining a judicious balance in their foreign relations. We in the media are fond of such shorthand phrases, but such ideas run the risk of hardening into clichés. What is your view of “bamboo diplomacy”? Is this a useful way to think of Thai diplomacy?

It is not. It not only simplifies complex situations but distorts them, often quite dramatically. Thailand did not “sway” (per the bamboo tree analogy) in America’s direction between 1945-1975; it was forced in that direction by the U.S. itself. And it was only when America lost its war in Vietnam, and with it its ability to force the Thais to remain on-side, was the Thai tree free to stand upright again.

This is not to celebrate such heavy-handedness – my book makes clear the damage done in Thailand by the U.S. over those three decades – nor to deny that Thailand has agency of its own. But the notion that the Thai tree somehow swayed in an anticipation of, rather than in response to, a geopolitical wind, simultaneously affords Thailand too much agency and the U.S. too little.

The same is true of the China-Thailand relationship now. As the Chinese foreign minister said in 2010 in the context of the South China Sea, “China is a big country and you are small countries and that is a fact.” It is true that the power gap between China and Thailand today is nowhere approaching the U.S.-Thailand gap 70 years ago; Thailand is no one’s client state now, as it was then. It is equally true that as was the case vis-à-vis the U.S. long ago, many a Thai elite has much to gain from a pro-China foreign and economic policy. And those facts do spell far more agency for Thailand at present than in the past.

But the winds are picking up – in the South China Sea, Taiwan, and elsewhere – and I am not convinced of Thailand’s ability or willingness to withstand their force.