If one theme characterizes Thailand’s foreign policy, it is the ability to take advantage of the rivalries of larger powers. Skillfully avoiding occupation during various colonial enterprises, Thai foreign policy has cleverly sensed the prevailing winds and adapted accordingly. Thailand’s close relationship with China – arguably one of the closest in Southeast Asia – sits alongside an alliance relationship with the United States. But the re-emergence of substantial independence sentiment in Thailand’s southern provinces has now put Thai diplomacy to the test. Although there is no direct link, in a sense Thailand’s separatist problem parallels China’s own difficulties in Xinjiang. Thailand’s latest challenge, this time domestic, finds that country sharing something of a similar strategic outlook to China.
Thailand’s relationship with China has not always been so vital – only in 1975 did the two countries restore diplomatic links. China’s support for the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) and its insurgency from the post-war period until the 1970s was a major stumbling block. But as America decreased its commitment in South Vietnam under President Nixon’s policy of forcing the Saigon government to assume more and more responsibility, Thailand reconsidered its options. Mindful that the non-communist states in Southeast Asia were in real trouble, and the strong possibility that there were limits to what Washington would do to save them, Thailand forged a relationship with China. Part of this courtship involved Thailand’s toleration of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, which Bangkok recognized. In December 1978, when Vietnam invaded Cambodia, China and Thailand formed a tight relationship that revolved around support for the armed opposition to Vietnamese rule. China and Thailand cooperated extensively in funneling provisions and materiel to the Khmer Rouge, while China ended all support for the CPT.
China and Thailand essentially formed a de facto alliance that ultimately extended to the armed forces of the two countries. China and Thailand signed a "Strategic Partnership" arrangement, which has included a regular exchange of military personnel and exercises. Since the early 1980s, Thailand has purchased armaments and military-related equipment under this partnership at "friendship prices" – much of which has effectively amounted to military gift aid. China and Thailand have announced a whole raft of measures and initiatives to mark the thirtieth anniversary of formalized relations in the year 2005. Until the expansion of ASEAN saw Burma join the ranks, Thailand could boast the closest ties to China of any ASEAN state – something that occasionally raised eyebrows in capitals like Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila and even Singapore.
In part, the relationship has stayed healthy due to some underlying factors. First of all, unlike Vietnam and the states of maritime Southeast Asia, Thailand has no overlapping territorial claims with China. The others are either joint claimants to the waters and islets of the South China Sea, or, in the case of Indonesia, out-right disputants over sea boundaries. Second, Thailand’s Chinese community has been well integrated into Thai society to the extent that the ethnic Chinese are not discriminated against in any way. On the contrary, Thais of ethnic Chinese ancestry are exceedingly well represented in the political, military and economic elite of the country. Though they remain Thai nationalists, many have even re-discovering their Chinese cultural and linguistic "roots" in recent years. Meanwhile, Beijing has made a point of identifying commonalities between Sinic and Thai culture. Third, Thailand is conscious of the reality of China’s emerging power in the Asia Pacific region, and is keen to adjust to the inevitability of Beijing’s economic and strategic reach into the region. Thai leaders are mindful of a long relationship with China that stretches back into the days when Thai monarchs paid tribute to Imperial China. The future will, for Thailand, look much like the past.
Here Thailand’s core strategic concept of "bending with the prevailing winds" comes into play. Thailand very carefully manages its foreign policy to retain close relations with both China and the United States, while also satisfying perceived demands from the Thai public. While holding on to the "Strategic Partnership" with China, Thailand never put the axe to its formal alliance structure with the United States, even if it was moribund during much of the 1970s.
The U.S.-Thai relationship, which outlived the failure of the South-East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) alliance just prior to the end of the Vietnam War, remains in quite robust shape. President Bush conferred on Thailand the designation of Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA) during a visit in October 2003. Despite what the name might suggest, MNNA Status does not entail the same defense guarantees to which NATO members have agreed. But the designation does indicate to Thailand its importance to the United States, particularly in light of Washington’s interest in counter-terrorism, and recognition of Thai peacekeeping contributions to both Afghanistan and Iraq. MNNA gives Thailand access to preferences in advanced weaponry. Thailand is also host to the annual Cobra Gold exercises, involving significant land, sea and air components of the United States armed forces.
However, Thailand has not allowed its relationship with America to dominate its policies. Unlike the Philippines and Singapore, Bangkok refused to back America’s unilateral invasion of Iraq. Skillfully hedging its bets, Thai diplomats remained mindful of their need to keep the United States somewhat at a distance, especially given public opposition to the war. While the insertion of troops after the invasion demonstrated to Washington that it was not entirely unsupportive, this allowed Thailand to maintain its balancing act.
The motivation of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra – himself a Sino-Thai – to maintain a degree of independence in his dealings with the United States cannot be explained solely by the China factor. Thaksin is aware of the need to preserve communal relations, particularly in the Muslim South. After a brief imposition of martial law in Thailand’s three southern-most provinces in January 2004, the Muslim south has spiraled into worsening violence for a combination of reasons including separatist sentiment, intra-elite violence, and criminal activity. Exacerbating existing complaints of identity loss, human rights abuses, and economic deprivation, Thai Muslims are conscious of events in the wider Muslim world. The Thaksin government is fully aware that the war in Iraq has the capacity to electrify his Muslim constituents if he is deemed to have whole heartedly sided with the United States.
This threat, emerging as Thailand’s major stability question, will serve to further bring China and Thailand on to the same page. Both face the separatist question in troubled Muslim majority periphery areas – Patani in Thailand and Xinjiang in China. Clearly, the post-September 11 environment, that has seen China and the U.S. suspend a degree of harsh rhetoric in favor of confronting the perceived common enemy of terrorism, will foster more convergence between China and Thailand as well. In the past, Thailand, out of concern to maintain its special relationship with China, has offered China very clear assurances on issues of China’s state cohesion. Thailand has gone further than many other states in supporting China’s saber-rattling towards Taiwan. Thailand even blocked entry to the Dalai Lama at one point, and expelled members of the Falun Gong sect, which is banned in China.
There have been instances of bilateral tension since the restoration of modern Sino-Thai diplomatic links. Thai officials still feel that China has failed to aid them in stemming the flow of drugs and people out of Burma. Thailand has also been critical of China failing to restrain the Chinese-equipped Burmese army from the occasional border incursion. A burgeoning two-way trade, which grew from US$8.6 billion in 2002 to US$12 billion in 2003, is heavily weighted in China’s favor and threatens to push a good deal of Thai business to the wall. China’s economy will be an opportunity to some Thai investors and exporters, but a giant steamroller to others.
On balance, however, Thailand seeks to engage China and draw it into a lattice of networks and relationships. What began as a convergence of interests over Cambodia, and checking Vietnam, has altered course to account for wider strategic shifts in the Asia Pacific region. The result – a close Sino-Thai relationship – remains the same even if the circumstances evolve. Thailand, unsure of either China’s ultimate reach as an emerging superpower or China’s ultimate intentions toward the region, has set itself on a course where it hopes to accommodate China’s rise.
Anthony L. Smith is an Associate Research Professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Hawaii. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, U.S. Pacific Command, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.<iframe src=’https://www.jamestown.org/jamestown.org/inner_menu.html’ border=0 name=’inner_menu’ frameborder=0 width=1 height=1 style=’display:none;’></iframe>