Thailand’s Chinese romance: Why Joshua Wong’s deportation is bad news for America

When Hong Kong’s infamous student activist, Joshua Wong, was held at a Bangkok airport observers were quick to call out the Thai authorities as a lapdog of Beijing. In fact, it’s more appropriate to say that the interests between the two countries are growing ever closer; driving a wedge between long-standing friends watching from Washington. 

By Tan Zhi Xin

Hong Kong student activist, Joshua Wong, was recently deported from Thailand after being detained for approximately 12 hours, denied of his passport and kept in isolation. Wong was planning to enter the country to address students at Chulalongkorn University and share his experience of being involved in the infamous 2014 Umbrella Movement.

However, he did not make it out of the airport. He was sent back at “Beijing’s request.” At a glance it seems Thailand has once again kowtowed to China, drawing the world’s attention to the romance between the two countries.

Failure of U.S.’ pivot to Asia

It is true that Thailand has been a long time political and economic ally of the U.S. However since the 2014 coup, military aid to Thailand from America decreased remarkably and high-level dialogues were suspended. In return, America’s access to Thai military bases was also limited.

Meanwhile, Thailand’s ties with China blossomed. Both sides have even come to describe their relationship akin to that of brothers or cousins. Just recently, after rocky negotiations they reached agreement over the cost of the first phase of the Sino-Thai railway project, with the first phase of construction expected to begin in December 2016.  This deal is significant as it allows China to integrate the region into a cohesive economic area, further undermining U.S’ influence in Southeast Asia.

Does that mean Thailand is now China’s lapdog?

To many observers, Wong’s deportation suggests that Thailand is just a Chinese marionette. Its willingness to accept Beijing’s demands “raises serious concerns about how China is using its influence over Thai authorities.” In fact, Wong’s deportation is not the first instance of Thailand acceding to China’s request.

There is the case of a Hong Kong book publisher that vanished from his apartment in Pattaya and was found later in custody in mainland China. Chinese journalist and campaigner, Li Xin, also disappeared en route from Laos to claim political asylum in Thailand. In July 2015, Thailand deported over a hundred of Uyghur refugees, while in November that year Thai authorities forcibly deported two Chinese democracy activists who were granted asylum status in Canada.

All of these incidents show the power of China, but it is not entirely true to say that decisions like that to deport Wong are entirely China’s doing. Thailand’s internal fears area equally influential, if not more important.

The event Wong was supposed to attend was to commemorate the massacre at Thammasat University on 6th October 1976. The carnage, commonly referred as the Oct. 6 Event, is a stain on Thailand’s history; to this day nobody has been found responsible.

“As no state official has even been held accountable for the massacre at Thammasat University, the incident has become emblematic of the culture of impunity that continues to plague Thailand to the detriment of real reconciliation within society, ” said Kingsley Abbott, a legal adviser with the International Commission of Jurists.

Therefore, the 40th anniversary is potentially threatening to domestic security. The military junta was afraid that Wong’s speech could stir up talks of democracy and trigger an uprising that would topple the existing government or, at the very least, undermine its position .

“Now is the time when Thailand is moving towards democracy, and if (Wong) says that we’re not a democracy, then it’s not the right time. What will happen? People will follow (what he says),” Thai Prime Minister General Prayut said. The current military junta would not tolerate any form of dissent; Wong was not welcome.

A confluence of interests?

To the seasoned eye, it is also clear that what happened was then simply a confluence of interests. Thailand has been doing as Beijing says because it stands to gain.

Nobuhiro Aizawa, an associate professor at Kyushu University and a former researcher at the Japan External Trade Organisation (JETRO), explains that Thailand’s current relationship with China is not due to a shift towards China. Rather, it is due to a growing distance between Washington and Bangkok.

“Thai officials see the country as being too reliant on the United States on the defense side – something fixed due to the alliance – such that any opportunistic courting of Beijing would help restore at least some balance in this domain rather than change the country’s orientation in a meaningful way” he added.

Indeed, since the military took power in 2014, the U.S. has been urging the Thai military to restore civilian rule and respect fundamental civil and human rights. At the same time, representatives have openly remarked that bilateral ties cannot return to normal unless democracy is restored. This has widened the gap between the two capitals.

In contrast, China adopts a hands-off approach and respects Thailand’s domestic development. As such, Thailand’s actions were meant to counterbalance Western criticisms; they are not a sincere tilt towards China.

It is also of no coincidence that Wong’s deportation coincides with a period of high-profile visits and announcements of various kinds of deals. If by rejecting the 19-year old’s entry into the country Thailand could safeguard its domestic security, and at the same time appease China, then why not do so?

Rather than saying that Thailand is aligning with China, it would be more appropriate to say they currently have a lot of interests in common.