Is China Losing or Gaining Against the US in Competition to Woo Bangkok? Media Can’t Decide
18:37 GMT 20.06.2022 (Updated: 18:39 GMT 20.06.2022)
Competing narratives have emerged in the English-language media about Thailand’s political allegiance amid the rapidly emerging cold war between the United States and China. Whether China is gaining or losing ground, both sides see it as indicative of Beijing’s supposedly “transactional” diplomacy.
“China losing, US gaining crucial ground in Thailand: Thai-China relations are in quiet but certain decline while US reaffirms its strategic and economic commitment to the kingdom,” a June 9 article in Asia Times triumphantly declared.
The article, which relies on “multiple Thai officials” cited anonymously, asserts that “as Beijing transitions from less soft and more hard diplomacy under ambassador Han, the Thais are overtly looking back to the US – and its regional ally Japan – for new diplomatic balance and choice.”
It casts China as a preying would-be colonial power, tapping into the common Western trope that China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure megaproject is nothing more than a tool for Beijing to get new leverage over other nations, and asserts that China has resorted to bullying Bangkok because it won’t finish a rail line connecting the Thai capital with Vientiane, Laos’ capital city that sits on the Thai border.
“I think they have that [encirclement] sense, but whether or not they fully appreciate that circumstance and it’s widely shared in the entire establishment, [I’m] not sure,” an unnamed Bangkok-based senior diplomat told Asia Times. “[But] when you look at it geographically, it looks like an encirclement and Thailand is the odd one out.”
The diplomat referred to Thailand as a “democratic oasis,” which contrasts sharply with the article’s framing of China’s friendship with Thailand only blossoming after the 2014 coup that the article’s author described as “a lurch from democracy that sent relations with long-time ally the United States into a tailspin.”
Aside from the snail-like pace at which China’s much-desired rail line is proceeding, the article’s only proof of its claims is that Thailand’s exports to the US grew during the COVID-19 pandemic while its exports to China diminished, driving up its trade deficit with Beijing; that Bangkok and Washington recently signed military deals; and Bangkok being a founding member of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), a rival economic bloc set up by Washington last month that excludes China but includes many of the surrounding nations.
Not mentioned in the article is that Thailand was also one of the first to ratify the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RECP), the world’s largest trade bloc incorporating almost all of East Asia and excluding the United States, which is hostile to the deal.
All of that contrasts very sharply with another article published 10 days later in Foreign Policy magazine, a Washington, DC, publication with major gravitas in American foreign policy spheres.
“Washington Worries China Is Winning Over Thailand: One of the United States’ oldest security partners in Asia is increasingly marching to Beijing’s music,” Foreign Policy opined on June 17.
According to this article, the US and its allies lost the initiative to Beijing after the military coups in Bangkok in 2006 and especially in 2014. While the Americans supposedly balked at the prospect of military cooperation with a non-democratic government, the unscrupulous Chinese swept in, promising the world to Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. Now, eight years later, China has sunk its claws into Thailand just like it supposedly did to the Philippines - ignoring of course that Manila doubled down on its alliance with Washington well before then-President Rodrigo Duterte left office.
“The recipe is there; all of the ingredients are there,” Lyle Morris, a senior policy analyst at the Rand Corporation and a former Pentagon official, told FP. “They’ve already invested in a lot of the defense industrial base with the subs and more arms being sold from China to Thailand. That’s how it starts: It’s building the relationships of the defense industrial base and having systems that are more amenable to China than to the US. I don’t think Thailand is lost yet, but they definitely need some love.”
Chief among FP’s concerns is Thailand’s $400 million deal to buy submarines from China, which European Union sanctions have ground to a halt after the German engine-maker canceled plans to supply the boats with propulsion. Although, according to an academic at the Heritage Foundation who spoke with the magazine, Beijing doesn’t really care about the sub deal since the BRI agreement is the real prize - again because it supposedly gives Beijing leverage over Thai affairs. This contradicts other points also made in the article about how China is using the sub deal and others as leverage.
In 2017 and 2018, the White House and Pentagon outlined in key policy documents the US’ strategic shift away from the War on Terror and toward what they called “great power competition” with Russia and China, with subsequent documents making clear that China is the main adversary. These nations, the US alleges, are “malign actors” with plans to destroy the “rules-based international order,” a fanciful name for the US-led world order that emerged after World War 2 and solidified at the end of the Cold War.
According to Western leaders and media, whenever China or Russia, or other nations like Iran or Venezuela engage in any action around the globe that Washington can’t dominate or stop, it’s done surreptitiously and necessarily undermines the US-led order. In China’s relations with Southeast Asia and its regional bloc, ASEAN, this characterization is out in full-force, especially with respect to the South China Sea and the longstanding dispute between six nations over who controls which island chains in the waterway.
For years, the US has fretted that Beijing was trying to bribe its way into getting what it wants from ASEAN nations, particularly by signing BRI development deals and using bluster to get what it can’t get in other ways. In response, Washington has tried to push one arms sale after another on ASEAN nations, including drones, fighter aircraft, and other systems, and more recently with COVID-19 vaccines. However, at the top of China’s agenda has been finishing a code of conduct for the South China Sea in cooperation with ASEAN.
After a dispute with Manila last spring, the two nations pledged to push forward on the draft code of conduct, and American academics have openly worried that if allowed to play out fairly, the code of conduct drafting will produce a document more amenable to Chinese interests than American ones. One paper from the DC think tank Center on Foreign Relations (CFR) proposed that Washington foul the China-ASEAN negotiations, draw up a separate code of conduct with ASEAN nations amenable to its interests, and impose it on China.