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Thai Coup Alienates US Giving China New Opening

After months of street protests, the Thai military ousted Prime Minster Yingluck Shinawatra’s elected government in May 2014, replacing her with General Prayuth Chan-ocha. Thailand has been a long-time strategic partner for the United States on many global initiatives, and US diplomats criticized the coup. “As the erstwhile allies drift apart, China has moved to fill the gap with economic aid and strategic overtures aimed at countering the US pivot policy towards Asia,” reports journalist Shawn Crispin, adding that China is financing a north-south rail line through the country and expanding joint military exercises. “It’s not clear that Thailand, renowned for astutely calibrating its great-power relations, has decidedly swung towards China.” The Thai king is not well, and some analysts suggest that the royalist establishment wanted to ensure stability with royalist generals in charge during the anticipated royal succession. US alienation of the Thai leaders during a difficult transition period could push the country into China’s waiting embrace. – YaleGlobal

Thai Coup Alienates US Giving China New Opening

The US pressures Thai generals to plan elections, despite rocky transition and royal succession
Shawn W. Crispin
YaleGlobal, 5 March 2015

Rebalancing between Washington and Beijing: Thai Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha meets Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing (top); US diplomat Daniel Russel criticized Thailand and privately met deposed premier Yingluck Shinawatra

BANGKOK: Throughout US global wars against communism, drugs and terrorism, Thailand has been an indispensable strategic partner. But the recent sharp deterioration in ties was evident in January when Thailand’s Foreign Ministry summoned the top US diplomat in Bangkok to register displeasure over the State Department’s critical comments about the country’s military rule. As the erstwhile allies drift apart, China has moved to fill the gap with economic and strategic overtures aimed at countering the US pivot policy towards Asia.

Thailand’s official rebuke stemmed from a January 26 public speech delivered by Daniel Russel, assistant US secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. In remarks to a Bangkok university audience, Russel raised concerns about a lack of “inclusiveness” in the military government’s so-called political reform drive and maintenance of martial law more than eight months after seizing power in a democracy-suspending coup.

The US has been a consistent critic since then army commander, now prime minister, General Prayuth Chan-ocha ousted Yingluck Shinawatra’s elected government in May. Prayuth has since vowed to restore democracy after the passage of a new constitution and wide-ranging reform. Critics muted under martial law view the process as a charade to sustain the military’s political role. 

While Prayuth’s coup was nominally staged to restore stability after months of debilitating anti-government street protests, many Bangkok-based diplomats suggest there was a hidden agenda to ensure that royalist generals rather than squabbling politicians are in charge during the delicate royal succession from ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 87, to either his heir-apparent, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, or daughter Princess Sirindhorn.

First crowned in 1946 and revered by a broad cross-section of the population, Bhumibol’s passing is expected to diminish the monarchy’s overarching position in Thai society. Opposed political groups have jockeyed for position to fill the impending vacuum, contributing to a decade of turmoil characterized by revolving street protests and security clampdowns. The military has professed neutrality, but its paramount role of defending the crown is aligned with a royal establishment keen to sustain the palace’s power and privilege beyond Bhumibol.

One agenda behind the coup may be ensuring that royalist generals are in charge during the royal succession.

Washington maintains what one US diplomat characterizes as an “engage not embrace” approach, a policy shift led by outgoing US Ambassador Kristie Kenney who initially refused to meet the coup-makers. Thai officials had deflected criticism of the coup and its clampdown on free expression and assembly, but the kerfuffle over Russel’s remarks, including the senior envoy’s insinuation that Yingluck’s impeachment by the military-dominated National Legislative Assembly was more political than legal, indicates relations are nearing a breaking point.

Prayuth told reporters that Russel had relied on “one-sided” information to assess Thai politics and he felt “sorry” that a long-time friend “misunderstood” the country’s context. Those comments resonate with a royal establishment that backed the coup while sensing that Washington sides with Yingluck and her self-exiled billionaire brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. Both sides of Thailand’s political divide profess to fight for democracy. Each has demonstrated authoritarian and abusive tendencies while in power.  

China, on the other hand, has aired no complaints, adroitly navigating the political currents compared to Washington’s polarizing pronouncements. Days after publicly scolding Russel, Prayuth hosted Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan, the latest in high-level bilateral exchanges since the coup. Chang offered, among other things, to expand the two sides’ fledgling joint military exercises to include air force maneuvers.

China has aired no complaints, adroitly navigating the coup as compared with US pronouncements.

Initiated in 2010, Chinese-Thai joint military exercises are more symbolic than substantial. But Beijing’s overtures to boost strategic ties have taken some sting out of Washington’s decision to downgrade this year’s joint Cobra Gold exercises, the region’s largest, held annually in Thailand since 1981. In punitive response to the coup, Washington limited this year’s maneuvers to humanitarian missions and reduced their naval component by some 20 percent. Some analysts speculate 2016 exercises could be cancelled if Thailand is not on a path to new elections.

The downsized maneuvers come amid a deal under consideration by Thailand’s Ministry of Defense to allow China to lead a multibillion dollar modernization of its Sattahip naval base on the Gulf of Thailand. Panitan Wattanayagorn, security expert and top aide to Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, suggests that allowing China naval access to Sattahip would “rebalance” the special US privileges long held at U-Tapao airfield, used for staging bombing campaigns during the Vietnam War and, more recently, refueling military planes in transit to Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Strategic recalibration by Thailand could have profound implications for the region’s balance of power. A new Ministry of Transport proposal to convert U-Tapao into a commercial airport, if approved, would likely end or diminish US military access to the runways. A Chinese naval presence in the Gulf of Thailand meanwhile would shift dynamics in two key maritime theaters by giving China a southern flank in the South China Sea and a new pressure point in emerging competition with India in the Indian Ocean.

Strategic recalibration by Thailand could have profound implications for the region’s balance of power.

It’s not clear that Thailand, renowned for astutely calibrating its great-power relations, has decidedly swung towards China. An older generation of still influential soldiers, embodied by the former prime minister, army commander and top royal advisor Prem Tinsulanonda, recall the vital US role in repelling China-backed communist revolutionaries bent on overthrowing the Thai monarchy in the 1960s and 1970s and keeping Vietnamese invaders at bay in Cambodia throughout the 1980s. 

Prayuth’s cadre is less beholden to those Cold War memories and views China’s rise as more economic opportunity than strategic threat. During a December visit to Thailand, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang inked a $12.2 billion dollar deal to build and help finance a north-south rail line connecting the Chinese city of Kunming to Bangkok and its industrial eastern coast. Prayuth’s economic lieutenants view the infrastructure as crucial to positioning Thailand as the soon-to-be-launched ASEAN Economic Community’s trade and transport hub. In 2013, China surpassed Japan as Thailand’s largest trade partner, representing around 14 percent of its total trade.

Still, Thailand’s ruling generals are aware of the risks of over-reliance on China, witnessed in the erosion of negotiating leverage in aid-for-concession Beijing deals for neighboring Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Thai officials have bristled at China’s proposed conditions for constructing the rail link, including Chinese management of its operations, rights to develop land along the 870-kilometer route, and a 4 percent interest rate on related loans.

There’s also political risk that the rail line facilitates fast-track migration of Chinese into Thailand as surging Chinese property acquisitions in the country become increasingly sensitive.  

Obama’s pivot has turned on rising regional anxieties about China’s perceived hegemonic ambitions, particularly among Southeast Asian nations with competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. Thailand has no claim in the maritime dispute. While Obama’s thinly veiled containment policy has built new strategic bridges to authoritarian regimes in Myanmar and Vietnam, and deepened ties to the Philippines’ military accused of abuses, the active alienation of Thailand’s generals has opened the way for China to counter US regional advances and drive a geographical wedge in its encirclement. 

The apparent US stand on democracy and rights could ultimately have the opposite effect. Prayuth’s post-coup vow to restore democracy quickly was made in part to appease the US and Europe, traditionally Thailand’s most important economic and strategic partners. The former army chief has already pushed back his original 2015 timeline for elections to 2016. As China presents an alternative rich source of trade and security, western pressure for new polls will have diminished resonance with ruling generals as they weigh the diplomatic costs and benefits of retaining power until the royal succession is secure.

Shawn W. Crispin has covered Thailand’s politics for more than 16 years variously with the Far Eastern Economic Review, Wall Street Journal and Asia Times Online. He may be reached at swcrispin@gmail.com.

Rights:Copyright © 2015 YaleGlobal Online and the MacMillan Center at Yale

Comments on this Article

17 March 2015
It is a very liberal approach to bash the person rather than facts. Your opinions are just that. Fact is, Thaksin amassed riches and power through corruption for personal gain. It is well known Thaksin paid massive kickbacks to obtain, for Shin Group, Thailand's first telecom concession. He then bought influence upcountry through massive populist policies and giveaways to turn upcountry farmers. Thaksin's abuses for personal gain were not good for Thailand. You can understand corruption in Thailand by referencing well received books by Pasuk Phongpaichit-
1) Corruption in Thailand
2) Thaksin
3) History of Thailand
The latter two were written by Pasuk, an economist at Chulalongkorn University and historian Chris Baker, her husband. Paul Handley's improper biography of King Bhumibol was a propaganda piece. Frame forward - are the Shinawatras in power today?? Crispin has a solid track record and has been an accurate reporter of Thailand politics and Thai things in general for many years with a significant following.
-DBWolfe , Thailand observer
11 March 2015
In the longer run all those predictions of Crispin turned out to be correct. Thaksin was finished, there is now a period of stability and the Red Shirts didn't amount to anything. He probably just missed the artificial way Thaksin would be propped up and the Red Shirt movement financed from abroad. The violence was instigated by the Red Shirts movement - it started and ended with it. In the landslide election which Thaksin's sister was elected she received less than half the votes. Thaksin and the Red Shirt movement fueled divisions and chaos in the country which were intended to break the country apart but It didn't work. Thaksin got into power in the first place by buying votes and he tried everything he did afterwards was designed to increase his power and diminish opponents. I could post a link to a Red Shirt rally where they cheer over their victory in Trat, where a child was blown up and killed in a terrorist attack, but that's history and they were quickly instructed that they shouldn't cheer.
-Karen Hargreaves , How accurate is Crispin
8 March 2015
Crispin's video comments in December 2008 - when he said Thaksin was finished, that there would be a "period of stability" and that the Red Shirts would amount to nothing - reveal him to be quite a flawed commentator who usually get things spectacularly wrong.
Only 5months after Crispin made his comments, in April 2009, 100s of 1000s of Red Shirts were on the streets of Bangkok, effectively shutting the city down. The Red Shirts returned in 2010 and Crispin's competent "technocrats" in the Democrat Party unleashed one of the worst massacres in Thailand's history and murdered almost 100 unarmed civilians and, just over a year later in 2011, Thaksin's sister was elected PM in a massive landslide election win followed by the military coup in 2014.
It's fair to say since 2008 the country has been in almost unceasing chaos and any pretence of stability has well and truly been demolished.
If Yale are going to employ someone to make predictions about Thailand please check if they actually have a record of accuracy - Crispin has none.
Watch the video here > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IErU1hwAECA
-Foogal , How accurate is Crispin?