Does US pressure really risk driving Thailand into China’s arms?

US Army members carry out an evacuation drill in Thailand during the Cobra Gold joint military exercises, which have gone ahead this month with a reduced American role. EPA/Diego Azubel

The unusually strident criticism of Thailand’s military regime by the US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Daniel Russel, during his visit to the country last month drew a strong reaction. Junta leader Prayut Chan-Ocha said publicly that he was “upset” by the comments. Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the US chargé d’affaires, W. Patrick Murphy, to express its displeasure.

Users of Thailand’s conservative social media are incensed by what they see as American meddling in domestic affairs and “lack of understanding” of the country. One prominent “yellow shirt” activist has accused the US of deliberately fuelling anti-American sentiment as a pretext to invade the country to protect its interests.

What does this reaction say about US-Thai relations? The US is clearly concerned about democracy and human rights in Thailand since the May 2014 coup. It is trying to play a careful game of not appearing to interfere in Thailand’s internal affairs, but at the same time sending a strong message to the military leadership that the current situation is unacceptable.

In this years’s Cobra Gold annual joint military exercises, the largest such exercise involving the US in Asia, the US has pointedly reduced its level of participation. In his speech at the opening ceremony last week, Murphy explicitly mentioned the reason for downgrading US participation.

Thai elite feel betrayed by US shift

For Thailand’s military regime and its supporters the US stance feels like a betrayal. Since the Cold War the US has enjoyed close relations with Thailand’s military, the Palace and the Thai elite more generally. Even after the 2006 coup, the US appeared to side with the coup-makers.

That has changed. US President Barack Obama’s visit in 2012 and his clear expression of strong support for Yingluck Shinawatra’s democratically elected government was seen by many in the Thai elite as a betrayal. The conservative establishment, led by the military and the Palace, now feels cornered and friendless.

Barack Obama’s 2012 visit marked a shift from past US support for regimes representing the Thai elite.

In the short term, this opens up opportunities for China. Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan visited the country only days before the Cobra Gold exercises began. Chang pointedly said that China would not interfere in Thailand’s internal affairs.

Regime’s grip is tenuous

How long can the military regime hold on to power? Despite the current repression, it’s far from clear that this regime can survive into the long term. As soon as the military lifts martial law the protests and demonstrations would begin again.

All former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra needs to do is to mobilise his supporters. This would present a major challenge to the regime and its backers. For the moment, he appears to be biding his time. But this will not last forever.

Thailand and China have enjoyed state-to-state relations for 800 years. The Chinese will deal with whoever is in power, whether it’s the military regime or a pro-Thaksin government. In an obvious goodwill gesture, Thaksin and his sister, Yingluck, were in China late last year visiting their ancestral homeland in Guangdong.

Thais will not turn backs on West

The other thing to understand is that the Thai elite is thoroughly pro-Western. Its members send their children to elite schools and universities in the US, the UK and Europe. They travel there for shopping and holidays. They are avid consumers of its fashion and popular culture.

As Thai academic Nidhi Eoseewong points out, the Thai elite recognises that in terms of education, technology, management systems and access to international markets, Thailand needs the US and the West in order to escape the “middle-income trap” and advance to a higher level of economic development.

China has massive amounts of capital to invest and the desire for quick profits. But if the regime were to throw its lot in with China and abandon the US and the West, Thailand would be left with little leverage over China. China would be able to call the shots.

The Thai elite understand this very well. Despite the pique displayed by the military regime and its elite supporters at US criticism, and the pretence of cosying up to China, there is little danger that Thailand will abandon the US for China. That would only lead to Thailand becoming even more isolated.

Japan’s Shinzo Abe (right) urged the visiting Prayut Chan-Ocha to return Thailand to civilian rule. EPA/Franck Robichon

The regime knows it has little to no support among Western countries. Thailand’s Southeast Asian neighbours also view the regime with distaste, even if ASEAN’s diplomatic culture prevents them from displaying their feelings openly.

Japan, too, has an interest in making sure Thailand does not become overly dependent on China. The powerful Japanese Federation of Business (Keidenren) recently called on General Prayut to return Thailand to civilian rule. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivered the same message to the junta leader during his recent visit to Japan.

Thailand needs a counter to China’s might

Because of its current isolation the regime has no option but to appeal to China for gestures of support. The Chinese will take advantage of this.

But this is a delicate game for the regime to play. If it throws all its eggs in the China basket, it may face resistance from the very sections of the Thai elite that backed it in the May 2014 coup. The Thai elite may hate Thaksin but will not abandon the US and the West, at least not in our lifetime.

The US and the West thus have little to worry about losing Thailand as an ally. As John Ciorciare argued in his 2010 book, the region’s nations cannot afford to throw their lot in exclusively with any one superpower. When you have a giant like China on your doorstep, you need to balance it with another power, or risk being swallowed.

This was the logic behind Myanmar’s rapprochement with the US and the West three years ago. I believe it is true of Thailand too.

That being the case, the US and the West could be bolder in ratcheting up the pressure on the military regime to lift martial law, call elections and abide by internationally accepted standards on human rights, without worrying that the regime would abandon them for China.