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Thailand's superpower courtship

Thailand's superpower courtship

Published: 19/11/2012 at 12:00 AM

Newspaper section: News

Whether it comes out of Bangkok or Washington, foreign policy ultimately derives from domestic politics. Long after United States President Barack Obama leaves Bangkok on this round of shuttle visits to three mainland Southeast Asian nations as part of his East Asia Summit (EAS) tour, Thailand's foreign relations will still be stuck and able to find traction only at the margins without much forward direction from the middle until the country's domestic tension and turmoil find a lasting political settlement and a new equilibrium.

No image of Thailand's political sclerosis is starker than the planned rally of anti-government protesters under the aegis of the Pitak Siam (Protect Siam) group just several days after the EAS and related Asean-led summits are concluded.

After weeks of high-profile foreign forays by the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, political brinkmanship is at hand once again merely 16 months after national polls had produced a clear winner and a main ruling party.

World leaders who recently have welcomed Prime Minister Yingluck and thereby embraced the democratic legitimacy of her government must be baffled by the cut-and-thrust of politics in Bangkok.

Domestic difficulties mean Thailand is unable to reinvigorate the Thai-US alliance in earnest. It is one of five treaty alliances the US holds with Asia-Pacific countries, alongside South Korea, Japan, Australia, and the Philippines.

Together with strategic partnerships of varying depth with Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, Washington has effectively set up a geopolitical ring around China, the rising giant on the Asian landmass.

At the same time, the US has engaged China in a nuanced and mutually beneficial fashion on trade and investment, providing space for Beijing to operate under multilateral rules and institutions.

While realists and characteristic pessimists see the Obama administration's pivot strategy in which American power and capabilities are reoriented towards East Asia as the maintenance of US primacy and isolation of China, optimists and liberals view it as the new regional multilateralism where rules and institutions are forged and cemented to conduct relations and manage interests among the states involved.

The deftest dimension of the pivot strategy is Mr Obama's manoeuvres in mainland Southeast Asia on this annual EAS occasion.

His presence in Thailand is really an exercise in holding hands with a longtime ally. His symbolic visit to Myanmar is designed to propel the democratic transition in what Mr Obama's predecessor used to label an outpost of tyranny.

The Obama presence in Myanmar will make up for years of sanctions which placed the US government and private sector behind the curve and out of action when China and Asean made deep inroads.

Granting Myanmar military observers a place at the annual Thailand-centred Cobra Gold military exercise is equally smart. A more democratic and less militarised Myanmar can only be closer to the US fold and farther away from China's brand of centralised authoritarianism.

Having reassured Thailand and encouraged Myanmar, the Obama visit to Cambodia is likely to make the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen think more than twice about throwing its lot in with the Chinese.

On top of the geopolitical game plan, the Obama administration touts a trade-promotion regime in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as the newly departing trade-liberation train in the face of failed global trade negotiations under the Doha Round. Those who miss this regional train of freer trade may suffer high opportunity costs, and China is not meant to be on it.

Not since the Cold War has the US come out with such a coherent and clever longer-term strategic posture and engagement. The key will be whether it is all about pursuing continued American hegemony and pre-eminence or about providing a counterbalance for Asian states concerned about China's rise and multilateral rules and institutions for regional relations.

For Thailand, the Obama strategy poses a dilemma. From when they personally met on the sidelines of the EAS in Bali last year, Thai-US relations have not made much headway.

The proposals to jointly conduct a climate study between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) and to set up a regional humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) at U-Tapao came to naught.

The Nasa scheme almost loomed as a constitutional crisis for Thailand until the Yingluck government disengaged from it. The U-Tapao HADR scheme was a non-starter.

These two projects would have boosted the growing non-traditional security (NTS) agenda in bilateral relations. The NTS agenda is the new frontier in regional cooperation and Thai-US cooperation therein could have formed a linchpin.

What Thailand and the US can agree on, such as the upgraded defence cooperation signed a few days ago by defence ministers of both countries, quickly turned into a political football in the domestic arena.

This defence agreement is more like a reaffirmation of past cooperation and intent to promote future collaboration in securing regional peace and stability. It is not all that ambitious and does not directly involve greater US military presence. Even then, it has become a pawn in Thai domestic politics.

Thailand's domestic polarisation has naturally turned to TPP. To show concrete results and take opportunity from the Obama visit, the Yingluck cabinet hastily resolved to start negotiations towards joining TPP without consultations with involved stakeholders in the private sector, civil society and parliament.

Unsurprisingly, this cabinet resolution is fiercely contested by vested groups and Thailand can be expected to be nowhere nearer to a TPP membership in the future.

The way to regain trade policy direction is to begin with public discussions and awareness programmes. Trade policy has to be more indigenised and less top-down. It would behoove the government to have a domestic consensus to use as leverage in international trade negotiations.

Civil society and private sector groups would engage in these discussions and be forced to come up with input and alternatives that can still grow the Thai economy in the years ahead.

To move forward in Thai foreign policy, a new trust between both sides of the divide and between the government and civil society and private sector will have to be found.

Article 190, for example, was set up to circumscribe abuses of the executive branch when it has unassailable control of the legislature. But this clause has handicapped Thailand's foreign relaions. It should be amended when there is sufficient consensus for a constitutional facelift.

Overall, Thai-US relations are a grinding frustration. Much less is achieved in view of an impressive track record and future potential. This is not beneficial because it curtails Thailand's leverage between China and the US.

It seems all significant US overtures from Nasa and U-Tapao to TPP to reinvigorate this treaty alliance end up being exploited for domestic political gains by one side or the other. The same is not true for China's manoeuvres which are better received and accommodated.

This lopsided tilt towards Beijing and relatively away from Washington is counterproductive in the long run. The Thai foreign policy genius is about playing all sides to an optimised mix. It is about choosing no sides but Thailand's own.

President Obama's visit here is not going to undermine Bangkok-Beijing relations but is likely to encourage the Chinese to pursue Bangkok more closely.

Bringing the US back in up to a point will entice China in a healthy, win-win superpower competition for Thailand's geopolitical favour, the same hedging and leveraging that Myanmar and Laos _ and perhaps Cambodia in future _ have adroitly adopted.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.


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