Who will Thailand choose as an ally - the U.S. or China?

Thai-Chinese relations are in quiet but definite decline while the U. S. reaffirms its strategic and economic commitments to the kingdom

Who will Thailand choose as an ally - the U.S. or China?

When Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai returned late on an April evening from a high-level meeting in Anhui, China, the Thai envoy was greeted at Bangkok airport by an unexpected host: Beijing’s ambassador to Thailand, Han Zhiqiang.

The diplomatic reversal of roles, with the Chinese envoy welcoming the kingdom’s foreign minister to Thai soil, sent a clear and strong signal, according to a Thai government insider, that Beijing would closely monitor the Thai government’s future actions following Don’s discussions in China, the Asia Times reported.

In Anhui, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi insisted that Don move faster on a long-delayed rail project designed to link Thailand to China via Laos. Beijing recently completed construction on the high-speed line, which without the Thai part represents a dead end in Southeast Asia for the Belt and Road Initiative, an insider said of the talks.

Wang also dissuaded Thailand from joining the U. S.-sponsored Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, then an undefined trade initiative that has since been formally launched with 13 regional partners as an alternative to China-led pacts and schemes, according to the same Thai government source.

China made significant diplomatic, economic and security gains in Thailand after military putschists led by soldier-politician Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha overthrew an elected government and installed a junta regime in 2014, a retreat from democracy that led to a fall in relations with longtime U. S. ally.

Eight years later, however, China has clearly not gotten everything it sought, and as Beijing shifts from less soft to more hard diplomacy under Ambassador Han, the Thais are openly looking to the United States — and its regional ally Japan — for a new diplomatic balance and choice, according to several Thai officials who spoke to the publication on condition of anonymity.

The root of Thailand’s emerging rupture in relations with China is the unbuilt rail line, which has been on the drawing board in Bangkok for more than a decade. But except for a few symbolic launches to please Beijing, the project has made little progress in actually connecting to the Laotian border.

Privately, Thai officials say they are concerned that the Belt and Road connection will increase the kingdom’s already high and growing trade deficit with China, which has grown by nearly 50 percent during the pandemic. Officials are also wary as China has taken control of key strategic assets in Laos as part of a debt-for-equity swap to settle overdue payments on railroad loans.

But as Bangkok’s “stalling” on the railroad project has by now become more overt politics than mere bureaucratic stupor. Some observers, diplomats, and officials believe that China is slowly but deliberately “encircling” the kingdom in an increasingly tough power play to get its way with the Thais.

Beijing’s pressure points on Thailand’s borders have increased as its regional influence has spread. Not least of these include a series of dams built by Beijing on the Mekong River, which are a restriction of water flows and which Beijing often applies without warning to downstream Thailand, leading to various floods and droughts for the Thai population.

Thailand’s National Security Council, meanwhile, has expressed private concern to some envoys who spoke to the publication about China’s construction of physical infrastructure on the Mekong in Laos in the form of refueling stations for riverboats, which the council believes Beijing is using as an excuse to step up patrols closer and closer to Thailand’s river border.

Foreign gunboats evoke deep emotions in Thailand dating back to the colonial era, when Britain and France used naval pressure to divide the kingdom’s lands. The perception that China is doing the same to impose its broader demands takes on certain characteristics, as seen in Bangkok’s determined opposition to China’s plan to blow up the rocky rapids of the Mekong to allow larger ships to pass through the waterway.

Chinese casinos in border areas of Laos have also attracted Thai attention because at least one of them has an extended runway, presumably for access by private VIP planes, but could also be used for military purposes. The casinos are known as havens for human, drug and wildlife trafficking, giving China yet another reason to beef up its security in the border area of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar.

The narrative of Thailand’s encirclement concludes in Cambodia, where China has a secret 25-year agreement for access to the Ream naval base overlooking the Gulf of Thailand. In neighboring Myanmar, where Beijing has accelerated the construction of another rail line linked to the Belt and Road project after last year’s military coup, and may have urged its allied rebel group, the United Wa State Army, to move ever closer to Thailand’s northern border.

“I think they have this sense [of encirclement], but whether they are fully aware of this fact and whether it is widely shared throughout the establishment, [I’m] not sure,” said one senior Bangkok-based diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But if you look at it geographically, it looks like an encirclement, and Thailand gets left out.”

According to the envoy, Thailand is increasingly looking like a “democratic oasis” in the region, while China is consolidating its power over neighboring authoritarian regimes in Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos. All of this raises questions in Bangkok’s diplomatic circles about the extent to which Thailand might be willing to realign its great power diplomacy away from China and toward the United States.

Thailand’s notorious “bamboozle in the wind” diplomacy, by any well-informed compass, is now tangibly leaning back toward the West. This is especially noticeable on the strategic front.

The expected U. S.-Thailand joint statement, previously to be announced during U. S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s postponed visit to Bangkok in March, would have perplexed Beijing with its dusty reference to the 1962 Raska-Tanat communiqué, which not only promoted the modernization of Thailand’s American army and infrastructure, but also included a guarantee to protect the kingdom from its aggressor neighbors.

So did the recent first-ever joint U. S.-Thailand paratrooping exercise, in which 200 troops flew nonstop from the U. S. state of Washington to Thailand with refueling in the middle of the Pacific.

The true state of U. S.-Thai military ties has been in question ever since Australian scholar Greg Raymond published a 2018 survey of more than 1,800 mid-level Thai officers that generally indicated a preference for China over the United States — though some have since raised critical questions about the survey methodology, including the possible influence of pro-China local study partners on soldiers’ responses and their interpretations.

Fast forward four years, and the military ties between China and Thailand appear to be in question because of the breakdown of a $1 billion submarine deal that has been at risk of political controversy since the previous government enacted it during the coup. The deal was threatened by Germany’s recent refusal to supply China with the MTU396 engine for the submarine because it would be sold to a third party, i. e. Thailand. Whether the U. S. pressured the Germans to refuse delivery is unknown.

Diplomats observing the developments noted the Thai side’s strong rejection of China’s offer to swap the German engine for a Chinese one, which they believe to be of lower quality. The submarine treaty provision allowing Chinese technicians to set up store at Sattahip Naval Base has strained U. S.-Chinese relations, since the U. S. Navy frequently visits the base and sometimes with sensitive goods that could be exposed to prying Chinese eyes.

Now some wonder if the potential cancellation of the Chinese submarine deal would free up funds to purchase American F-35 stealth fighters instead. As with the submarine deal, the political opposition supported the Air Force’s request to purchase eight F-35 fighter jets at a cost of 2.7 billion baht each, included in the 2023 draft budget.

If purchased, the jets would greatly enhance interoperability between the United States and Thailand; a U. S. Air Force inspection team will reportedly soon assess Thailand’s readiness to operate the fifth-generation jets.

The more important monetary question, however, concerns the extent to which Thai politicians and leaders see a role for China in rebuilding the kingdom’s economy after Kovid. Bilateral trade relations took a definite hit when China closed its border to Thai imports of durian and lychee, nominally in the name of preventing Kovid, but perhaps also forcibly because of the lack of progress in building a rail line.

China’s closed borders from Covid and a more inward-oriented “double-circulation” economic strategy likely mean that the waves of Chinese tourists that sustained Thailand’s tourism boom before the pandemic, when the Chinese accounted for about 28 percent of the nearly 40 million tourists visiting the kingdom in 2019, will not return in the same mass numbers anytime soon, if at all.

Those who feel the bamboozle is bending in America’s favor again note that Thailand’s exports to the U. S. increased during the pandemic, rising 40% year over year from 2020 to 2021 with a trade surplus of $26.6 billion, while the kingdom’s deficit with China rose from $20.8 billion in 2020 to $29.8 billion in 2021, an increase of nearly 50%.

The same economic observers note that U. S. investment in Thailand still surpasses Chinese investment, especially in job-creating manufacturing, although Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei has made great strides in building 5G-related infrastructure, contributing to the trade deficit by importing telecommunications equipment that is cheaper than that of competing Western companies.

These longstanding and still strong trade ties with the U. S. probably explain why Thailand defied Wang’s entreaties in Anhui and decided to become one of the first 13 countries to join the IPEF, which was officially opened by Biden in Japan. Prime Minister Prayut traveled to Tokyo just days later, where he made a call that some took to be a call for IPEF to increase Japanese investment in Thailand’s promising and important electric car industry.

If the Thais, by nature non-confrontational, had their diplomatic will, the U. S. and China would refrain from fighting for power and influence within the kingdom. The outspoken criticism of China’s policies by outgoing U. S. Ambassador Michael Desombre in an article in Thai criticizing China’s maneuvers on the Mekong did not please many Thai officials.

They reportedly prefer the flatter approach of Thai-speaking U. S. Charge d’Affaires Michael Heath, who, according to those familiar with the de facto chief envoy’s diplomacy, is focused on rebuilding relations and not forcing the Thais to take a geopolitical side — even though Chinese Ambassador Han openly snarls at the United States on his embassy social media.

Although Khan has clearly been sent to Thailand to make progress on various stalled avenues — whispered that at the personal direction of Chinese President Xi Jinping — the envoy’s tougher stance has not won him many allies or supporters in the Thai Foreign Ministry.

There, many consider his go-go style assertive, if not tone-deaf, compared to Thai chargé d’affaires Yang Xin, who served as chief envoy for nearly two years while the ambassadorial post remained vacant.

But if China is losing and the U. S. is reclaiming Thailand, Beijing’s vacuous diplomacy is partly to blame. China sought to get ahead of the U. S. in the fight against the pandemic by heavily promoting its Sinovac vaccine at a time when Thailand was inexplicably late in the queue to buy American-made mRNA vaccines. (CP Group, a Thai-affiliated company affiliated with China, owns a 15% stake in Sinovac Biotech.)

Ultimately, the U. S. government’s donation of Pfizer vaccines may have turned the tide of the deadly Delta wave in the kingdom last August, providing Washington with a PR coup with its superior medical technology, while questions about Sinovac’s effectiveness against new Covid strains swirled then and now, far and wide.

While China continues to supply Sinovac, now seemingly more for diplomatic photo ops than actual disease control, Thai medical teams are quietly burning through unused stockpiles as Thais largely abandon Sinovac in favor of Pfizer and Moderna, according to a Thai government source familiar with the burning process.

“China sees us as a customer and the U. S. as a partner,” said another senior Thai official. “That’s always been the difference.”