Thailand between a US rock and Chinese hard place
Author Benjamin Zawacki chronicles in well-documented detail how America lost and China won influence in the Southeast Asian kingdom
Benjamin Zawacki provides a thoroughly researched account of the alarming shift of a US ally and friend into the orbit of China. Thailand: Shifting Ground between the US and a Rising China details the US diplomatic blunders and inaction that have accelerated this move.
With extensive interviews of senior officials and access to embassy dispatches, the book piles up details that are compelling. Shifting Ground should be required reading for every US diplomat and policy maker dealing with Southeast Asia and China.
The book, however, ultimately points to an even more serious problem at the center of US foreign policy: the conflict between American ideals of democracy, human rights and rule of law and the practicality of dealing with governments and dictators that respect none of these.
The US attempt to have it both ways – American ideals and effective real world advancement of US national interests – delivers neither, Zawacki argues.
In the case of Thailand, Zawacki shows how US posturing during Thailand’s frequent bouts of political violence and military takeovers eroded US influence. It is not just that the US government criticized Thailand’s democratic failures, but that such criticism was missing when immediate US interests seemed more important.
He quotes former Thai prime minister, Anand Panyarachun saying “What happened in Egypt in 2013? They (America) helped the army dismantle a democratically elected government. If you go back, the US did that in Guatemala, in Panama, in Nicaragua, in the Dominican Republic, in Cuba. Yet, they keep on carping about this timetable, about a roadmap for when we will have democracy. It’s absurd.”
Zawacki writes that this has led many Thais to conclude that US policy is hypocritical at its core. This perception of hypocrisy has been heightened by the failure of the US government to back up its idealistic words with effective action. The Barack Obama government’s announcement of a “pivot” to Asia displayed an awareness that US interests require effective action to compete with China for influence in the region.
However, Zawacki documents how, in the case of Thailand, the actions intended to implement the pivot were too few, too weak and too inconsistent to be effective. Worse, the announcement of the pivot energized China’s efforts in Thailand. Zawacki writes: “US policy was finally spot-on, but its architects and agents could not get out of their own way, causing China to pivot even further into the country and region. America’s non-pivot would backfire.”
In contrast, China’s approach has been to keep quiet about Thailand’s internal problems and focus on concrete actions to build influence through business, trade, infrastructure projects, education, and a well-funded and consistent program of soft diplomacy focused on Thailand’s royal family.
From Zawacki’s detailed account of China’s clearly successful effort to become the dominant foreign friend of Thailand, it might appear that he thinks the US should follow such a pragmatic, realpolitik approach. That, however, is not what he proposes.
The author writes in his concluding chapter that: “A solution will come, in Thailand, as elsewhere, only when the US decides to consistently treat democracy, human rights and the rule of law as national interest — not merely perceive or proclaim them as such, but invest strategic resources toward their protection and advancement.”
Such a change in US foreign policy has been mooted in the past under presidents such as Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, but there has never been effective and consistent implementation. There has always seemed to be a dictator that had to be mollified, human rights abuses that had to be ignored or a military takeover that had to be accepted for perceived short-term national interests.
It is in this critique that the book about China and Thailand offers a wider warning about US foreign policy. Despite being the most powerful military and economic power in the world, US influence is declining, in Thailand, in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.
In Thailand, Zawacki shows how this decline was accelerated by blunders in dealing with Thai political conflicts, in failing to conclude a free trade agreement with Thailand, in doing little to help Thailand in the 1997-98 economic crisis, and in omitting Thailand from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP blunder was, of course, later magnified by abandoning the trade agreement entirely under Donald Trump.
Zawacki’s account, however, is not relentlessly negative about US efforts to maintain its influence in Thailand. He cites American assistance after the Indian Ocean tsunami and other disasters, the establishment of a police officer training institute in Thailand and the good efforts of certain American diplomats, such as former ambassador Ralph “Skip” Boyce.
He also acknowledges that China has key natural advantages in its proximity to Thailand, the large number of ethnic Chinese in leadership positions, and the benefits of business links to the large and growing Chinese economy.
He proposes that many of the developments that have reduced US influence are the result of poor political decisions by the Thais themselves.
The abuse of power by civilian politicians, the refusal to abide by reasonable rules for political competition, the resort to political violence by multiple parties, the corruption of officials, both civilian and military, and the welcome given to military dictatorships, have all had a negative effect on the US-Thai relationship.
The book does not deal with the rise of Donald Trump, but the dangers Zawacki documents of inconsistent US policy, failure to understand local context and allowing domestic political interests to determine foreign policy appear likely to worsen. It is certainly already apparent that the author’s recommendations of more effective action on democracy, human rights and law are unlikely to be a priority for the Trump administration.
Zawacki warns that Thailand’s case shows that the US is failing to meet the challenge of a rising China more broadly. He writes: “In a strategically located Thailand, the US has not been competing with China for influence in how Thai leadership perceives power, treats its people and applies its laws.”
In contrast, many in the Thai leadership have come to look with admiration on how China is governed. China’s policy of tolerance for authoritarian rule and suppression of political freedom in Thailand is consistent with what Zawacki calls the “China Model.” That model, focused on government-led economic development, has gained credibility through China’s remarkable economic growth.
Its use of state power to repress dissent and ensure order looks good to many Thais after a decade of violent political conflict. This has a strong appeal for Thai military leaders who have now held power for more than four years.
Zawacki shows how China gained influence with the Thai military through offers of training, cheap material and special equipment, including submarines. In contrast, US military influence, once dominant, has declined rapidly with fewer officers trained and less equipment provided, though recent reports indicate new arms deals could be in the offing.
Zawacki makes it clear that China’s strategic interests in Thailand are not altruistic, though many of their actions to further those interests may appear to be. Thailand is a key piece in China’s long-term geopolitical strategy for dominance.
That strategy, according to Zawacki, seeks ways to avoid the chokepoint of the Straits of Malacca through which much of China’s energy supplies and raw materials must pass. Currently that chokepoint is controlled by the US Seventh Fleet.
China, therefore, seeks access to the Indian Ocean through Myanmar and Thailand. China’s support for rail and road infrastructure through Thailand is part of this strategy.
Zawacki predicts that no later than 2025 China’s influence will be sufficiently powerful to induce Thailand to start the construction of a canal through southern Thailand to provide Chinese shipping with an alternative to the Malacca Straits. Such a canal would come at a huge environmental, social and possibly financial cost to Thailand.
Zawacki’s book serves not only as a warning to the US but also to Thailand. Thai leaders should pay particular attention to the struggles of the current Malaysian government to reduce the burden of Chinese-initiated infrastructure projects along the Malacca Straits.
Those projects include multi-billion dollar ports, industrial parks, artificial islands, rail links and gas pipelines that benefit China’s regional strategy with the local taxpayers picking up most of the bill.
This is an important book, but it is not an easy read. Zawacki supports his key points with an accumulation of details that can be mind-numbing. He moves back and forth in time in ways that can be confusing. His writing style is complex and lawyerly.
The detailed account is supported by more than 1,300 footnotes, though some of them are unnecessarily cryptic. Zawacki makes excellent use of the embassy dispatches found on the WikiLeaks website, but the footnotes for these references include only a document number and date, forcing the reader to access the website to see who signed the cited dispatch.
All in all, Zawacki gets things mostly right in his account of the twists and turns of the US-Thai relationship. His accumulated evidence and his conclusions deserve serious attention from both Americans and Thais. The rise of China may be impossible to stop, but America’s failure to compete effectively is opening the way for China to gain easy regional domination.