Bangkok’s balancing act: Is Thailand really in lockstep with China?

Chinese dragons dance for Chinese New Year in BangkokPhoto: Aleksandr Zykov

Five years of junta rule trammelled Thailand’s relations with the US and pushed it to new military and strategic ties with China. Prayuth hasn’t left Washington for Beijing—Bangkok is just being pragmatic.

By Skylar Lindsay

Last month in Bangkok, after meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha compared Thailand to an ant and China to a lion: “A tiny ant can sometimes help a big lion or elephant.”

The animal metaphor drew some questions from the Thai public, but it speaks to the government’s approach to relations with China. Since Thailand’s coup in 2014, Bangkok has increased its military ties with Beijing out of pragmatism and a new drive to balance relations with its long-term allies in Washington. Sometimes this takes the form of appeasement or pandering rhetoric but it’s still calculated tact, even if the wording was off-the-cuff.

When the Thai military overthrew the civilian government of then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in a bloodless coup in May 2014, giving way to nearly five years of junta rule, the US refused to recognize the junta government. China, on the other hand, was quick to recognize the new Thai leaders.

As the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), led by then-General and current Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, assumed control, the US cancelled military and arms agreements with Thailand and froze around half of its military aid to the country, about US$4.7 million.

Thailand and the US have a rich history of military and strategic support. The pair have conducted as many as 40 joint military exercises per year, though this number has decreased since 2014, and the US maintains a presence at Thailand’s U-Tapao airbase, using it to fly troops and equipment to its war in Afghanistan.

As the US rebuked Thailand’s military government and has failed to match China’s engagement in the region in recent years, Thailand has responded by “pivoting” towards China. 

Analysts from Thailand and the US have made much of this diplomatic shift, but it is, first and foremost, a reaction to the US refusal to endorse the junta and a realisation that the generals would need to manage their reliance on US military and strategic support.

Prayuth’s lion-and-ant imagery for Sino-Thai relations is revealing because of its flaws. US weapons sales still dwarf China’s: in 2018, the US exported 10 times more arms than China. If China is the lion, is the US the blue whale?

Prayuth also isn’t the only one in the Thai government to invoke Thailand’s size to explain its foreign policy.

“It’s about creating balance—we can’t choose sides, we have to be friendly to everyone,” Raksak Rojphimphun, director-general of policy and planning at the Thai Defense Ministry, said in November. “We’re a small country. We can’t choose our friends.”

The US pushed Thailand’s military government towards China

The US decision to sanction the Thai military government wasn’t a political one. 

Washington’s reaction to the 2014 coup was mandated by domestic law. The 1961 US Foreign Assistance Act makes it illegal for the country to provide aid to any government that secured power in what the US considers to be a coup. 

Royal Thai Army soldiers render the hand salute as the Deputy Supreme Commander and the American Ambassador to Thailand (both not shown) pass to their front in Korat, Thailand, May 8, 2008, during tghe opening ceremonies of exercise Cobra Gold 2008
Royal Thai Army soldiers render the hand salute.
Photo: U.S. Army by Sgt. Pablo N. Piedra

Despite the junta’s power grab, the US continued much of its military cooperation with Thailand, including the Peace Corps program and the US-driven Cobra Gold exercise, an annual military drill hosted by Thailand involving 29 countries. Notably, the drill includes military personnel from China.

China offered the Thai junta tanks and submarines

Thailand has stepped up its purchases of arms from China since the coup, reportedly signing 10 separate agreements to purchase arms from Beijing since 2014.

In 2016, China signed a deal to sell US$231 million worth of equipment and vehicles to Thailand. In early December, Thailand received the first of three shipments under the deal, including Chinese tanks and other military vehicles worth US$76 million.

There is also the now-notorious decision by the Thai navy to pay US$1.2 billion for three Chinese submarines. The plan has drawn widespread public criticism since the Navy approved the deal in 2015. 

The navy paid its first instalment—US$23 million—on the first submarine in 2017, but it’s unclear whether the rest of the deal will go ahead. Navy commander Admiral Ruechai Ruddi has told the public to stop discussing the issue.

The Thai military government sought to use these deals to fill the temporary gap left by the US, but Thailand has not abandoned its military alliance with the US.

The US has stepped back in to support post-coup Thailand, no matter the mess

Thailand has now ostensibly transitioned back to democracy and the new government, still led by Prayuth and the military, has maintained the policy of courting Beijing while working to rebuild US support.

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross visited in Thailand on September 27-28, 2017. He met with Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha and addressed members of the American Chamber of Commerce.
U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and Prayuth Chan-o-cha.
Photo: US Embassy Bangkok

The US has been eager to reinvigorate the US-Thai partnership. When General Prayuth became civilian Prime Minister Prayuth in July, the US declared that “a democratically elected government has taken office in Thailand,” a step which legally allows the country to restore aid and other cooperation, measures. As soon as the declaration went public, the US State Department also approved the sale of US$175 million worth of military vehicles and equipment to Thailand.

The Washington Post published an editorial questioning Thailand’s transition to civilian rule. It labelled the Thai election in March a “crude mockery” of democracy. The Post argued that restoring cooperation with the Thai government would mean waiving the Foreign Assistance Act and argued that the US Congress should only do so in exchange for improvements on human rights or other concessions.

But Washington seems to realise that this would put further strain on the relationship. In August, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo praised Thailand for its return to democracy “marked by the core tenants of the rule of law, of openness, of transparency, of good governance, of respect for sovereignty.” Soon after, the Thai military announced a US$138 million deal to purchase eight helicopters from the US.

The US and ASEAN, with Thailand as chair, advanced military cooperation by holding their first joint naval exercise drill in September. Though the US and the regional bloc have held other military drills in the past, naval cooperation has long been on the agenda. The operation was based at the Thai naval base in Chonburi. Cooperation of this nature is a key part of the Trump administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.

But more important than the exercise itself was how ASEAN and China viewed it. Joint military drills are significant because they signal that Thailand is willing to take the lead on an effort to balance China’s influence in a key strategic area. 

At the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting in July in Bangkok, Thai defence minister Prawit Wongsuwan insisted that the bloc’s military cooperation with the US wouldn’t be an issue for China. About a year earlier, ASEAN held a similar exercise with China.

Bangkok-Beijing military ties are in step with their development agendas

Thailand’s new military ties to China are an extension of their partnerships in other areas, including development projects. Prayuth has committed to supporting the ever-expanding Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), though Chinese-backed development projects in Thailand have already encountered some roadblocks.

The ambitious plan for a US$9.9 billion high-speed railway from Bangkok to Nong Khai, in the northeastern Isaan region on the Lao border, has been dogged by questions about funding, with concerns over how the loans for the project will be managed and who will bear liability for managing the project’s construction.

As with arms deals and military exercises, the Thai military government embraced China’s regional infrastructure plans out of pragmatism. 

“I would say that Thailand is no longer tilting toward China but, instead, is pivoting back toward the United States,” Paul Chambers, a lecturer and adviser for international affairs at Naresuan University, told BenarNews recently. “Nevertheless, I expect the Thai government will seek to balance off the United States and China in terms of foreign policy and arms purchases.”

Sometimes, the Thai government’s efforts to balance US and Chinese influence have even come on the same day. On November 17, in two separate meetings, Prayuth signed agreements with both China and the US to increase bilateral military ties.

The prime minister met with US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper to sign a new US-Thailand Joint Vision Statement outlining commitments to increase security cooperation. Prayuth then met with Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe to discuss BRI projects.

Thailand isn’t an ant and it’s not running towards a lion, despite the prime minister’s penchant for creative rhetoric.

Speaking to Bloomberg around the time of the Thai election in March, US Charge d’Affaires ad interim Peter Haymond offered a helpful perspective.

“I’d anticipate every country in the region here has a more active engagement with China now than they did five years ago and certainly 10 years ago, because China is changing,” he said. Thailand hasn’t sacrificed its relationship to the US. As with the ant and the lion, it’s all about optics.

About the Author

Skylar Lindsay
Skylar Lindsay is a writer and photographer focused on development, the envrionment and conflict, primarily in Southeast Asia.