ASIA HAND US slips, China glides in Thai crisis
By Shawn W Crispin
BANGKOK - When United States Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell bid to
bring together top Thai officials and close associates of self-exiled former
premier Thaksin Shinawatra at a joint breakfast meeting in Bangkok in early
May, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's government declined the high level
Officials familiar with the overture say that Thai Foreign Minister Kasit
Piromya was furious at Washington's overt attempt to intervene at a crucial
juncture in the country's violently escalating conflict. The pro-Thaksin
protest group, the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD),
ultimately refused the government's reconciliation roadmap, including an offer
of early elections, and troops responded days later with lethal force to break
up their demonstration.
After the crackdown and a return to relative calm in the Thai
capital, Abhisit dispatched special envoy Kiat Sitheeamorn to Washington to
deliver a more diplomatic rebuke and encourage Washington to refrain from
future mediation in the conflict, which officials say is a sovereign affair
that the criminally convicted Thaksin is bidding to internationalize for his
"We are long-time friends and allies for 177 years and that means a lot," Kiat
told Asia Times Online in an exclusive interview. "The position of the US has
always been if we call for help and support, they will extend a helping hand.
But its up to us to request and we have not asked ... I understand the
intention was good, but perhaps there was a lack of understanding of a very
The diplomatic skirmish underscored the ongoing drift between the long-time
treaty allies and the comparative regional rise of China. In the wider US-China
competition for influence in Southeast Asia, analysts and diplomats believe
that Beijing's more pragmatic diplomacy throughout the recent Thai crisis stole
yet another march from Washington's more interventionist approach.
While China has significant diplomatic sway over neighboring Cambodia, Laos and
Myanmar, the US has maintained strong strategic ties to Thailand and
historically has frequently intervened in Bangkok's internal politics. The
US-Thai strategic relationship peaked in significance during the Cold War, but
relations have since drifted without a clear common strategic threat to
mobilize against. Meanwhile, a series of commercial disputes, including hotly
contested intellectual property issues, have strained bilateral ties. (See
When allies drift apartAsia Times Online, February 14, 2009.)
China has quietly bid to capitalize on that drift and is now locked in a
subtle, but intensifying, competition with the US for Thai influence. One
Chinese official, who spoke with ATol on condition of anonymity, suggested that
the US had "blundered" by intervening so overtly in recent Thai events and
credited his embassy with taking a more nuanced approach to the crisis.
The US's behind-the-scenes influence was first exposed when Deputy Prime
Minister Suthep Thaugsuban said in early March that he had received
intelligence from Washington warning that there could be sabotage at the UDD's
planned protest - a prediction that was borne out by subsequent events. The UDD
briefly rallied in front of the US Embassy to insist it was a peaceful,
pro-democracy movement, but US diplomats later accused UDD leaders of
stockpiling arms at their protest site.
UDD co-leader Weng Tojirakarn, now imprisoned on potential terrorism charges,
told ATol before the May 19 crackdown that "if the US interpreted events more
carefully, they would see the true evidence". Last week, the US Embassy refused
to receive a letter from a UDD-affiliated group that called on the US House of
Representatives to review its recent resolution in favor of Abhisit's
While the US managed to peeve both sides to Thailand's conflict, China
maintained a policy of non-interference in an ally's sovereign affairs. The
Chinese envoy said Beijing signaled its commitment more economically by serving
as the largest foreign investor to Thailand in the first quarter and by
promoting bilateral trade, which was up 70% year-on-year over the same period.
"Our interests and international relations are becoming more complex. We see
advantages in the competition between superpowers," said government spokesman
Panitan Wattanayagorn. "The US has high stakes in Thailand and they actively
pursue their interests ... China is less active and uses an indirect approach
and its handling of this situation was no different." He said China-Thailand
ties are becoming "more and more dynamic" and that "China is very pragmatic,
but very keen in getting information and reacting."
The US and Thailand stage annually Asia's largest joint military exercises,
known as Cobra Gold. Thailand was upgraded by the US to "major non-NATO [North
Atlantic Treaty organization] ally" status in 2003, a designation that gives
Thailand enhanced access to foreign and military aid including credit
guarantees for weapons purchases. That upgraded status was widely viewed as a
reward for Thailand's assistance in prosecuting the US's global "war on
Thailand has allowed the US access to its U-Tapao airbase to refuel planes
destined for its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bangkok has also allowed the US
access to unknown military facilities where terror suspects nabbed in those war
campaigns have been sent, detained and, in at least one instance, tortured by
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officials, according to US congressional
US and Thailand: allies in torture Asia Times Online, January 25,
At the same time, Thailand has gradually expanded military-to-military
relations with China, with many new joint initiatives launched during former
premier Thaksin's tenure. According to the Chinese Embassy official, the two
sides have now conducted three different joint special forces exercises and are
scheduled to hold their first joint naval exercise later this year.
One US official notes that Thailand has declined to accept payment for its
joint exercises with China, while the US foots the bill for the much larger and
more expensive multilateral Cobra Gold exercises - where China has maintained
observer status since 2008. But while China's joint exchanges are still
comparatively modest in scale and scope, their existence aims to subtly
undermine a Cold War premise behind US-Thai strategic ties: that China is a
potential threat to regional and Thai security.
The Chinese envoy believes that Beijing's ramped up commercial and cultural
diplomacy - including the promotion of ties with Thailand's politically and
economically powerful Sino-Thai minority - is now more relevant and attuned to
Thailand's future interests than the US's still strong emphasis on security
He estimated that there are 12 million Sino-Thais among Thailand's 65 million
population, a subtle indication that the Chinese Embassy has undertaken its own
ethnographic research. Official Thai census statistics do not make an ethnic
distinction between Thais and Sino-Thais; China's embassy website lists only
Thai and Chinese under ethnic groups in Thailand, overlooking the various hill
tribes and other indigenous minority groups. The Chinese envoy also noted that
30 of the 36 ministers in Abhisit's cabinet could be considered Sino-Thai.
This year, China will have dispatched 1,200 Mandarin language teachers to
Thailand and in recent years has established a dozen so-called "Confucian
centers" at different Thai universities and colleges. With China's emergence as
an economic powerhouse, the envoy suggested that a growing number of Thais
would rather learn Chinese than English to get ahead professionally.
"The closeness of our cultural ties plays an important role in our relations,"
said Thai trade representative Kiat. "Religion plays a role, the generations of
overseas Chinese migrating to our country and their role during difficult
times, they are all important ties. Do we have the same ties with US? Not
similar, not at the same level ... The fact that the Chinese government sees
the importance of this issue we appreciate, because it's a strength."
China's race-based diplomacy has arguably allowed Beijing to more deftly
straddle Thailand's political divide, which at its core pits opposed camps of
Sino-Thai elites with competing visions for the country's future after the
82-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej passes from the scene. While both sides
have mobilized potent symbols and themes, with opposing calls to defend the
monarchy and class warfare, neither camp has highlighted the disproportionate
influence Sino-Thais command over Thailand's wealth and power.
China's ethnic overtures to Thailand represent a recent diplomatic turn. When
then-president Jiang Zemin visited Thailand in 1999, he sparked a mild
controversy when some perceived his trip to Bangkok's Chinatown as an overt
appeal to his ethnic brethren. Until recently China had shied from race-based
gestures given the region's - including Thailand's - severe history of
launching pogroms against their ethnic Chinese minorities.
However, with economic power has come diplomatic confidence and sophistication.
The current Chinese ambassador to Thailand, Guan Mu, is a fluent Thai speaker
and has served in the country for 18 years in different capacities. That ease
and familiarity, some Thai officials suggest, has given China a personal edge
over the US Embassy's top envoy.
US ambassador Eric John has come under fire from Thai officials and influential
US expatriates for being out of touch with Thailand's complex politics and
cultural mores. In particular, John was seen as instrumental in arranging the
botched Campbell breakfast intervention, a meeting Thai officials say was
inappropriate and planned at the last minute.
The US State Department recently conducted a probe into John's tenure in
Thailand, including, apparently, into the personal activities of his wife
Sophia John. John's tour was recently cut short by four months for unclear
reasons, though his name has been floated as special representative and policy
coordinator for Burma (Myanmar).
A petition circulated among influential Americans in Bangkok opposes his
nomination, reasoning that his interventions in Thailand's political troubles
have been "indiscreet, ill-advised and counter-productive" and that he lacks
the "cultural sensitivity or interpersonal skills for negotiations in Southeast
Asia". The US's bid to engage Myanmar is an overt diplomatic gambit to undercut
There was some speculation in the wake of the 2006 military coup that ousted
Thaksin that the US, via its strong personal and institutional ties to
top-level Thai soldiers, had benefited at China's expense. The Chinese Embassy
official noted that bilateral exchanges at various levels across a wide range
of fields flourished under Thaksin's six-year tenure. After the coup, however,
many of those exchanges were abruptly discontinued without explanation, he
It's unclear if that scaling back was a deliberate Thai policy to reverse
Thaksin's pro-China trend, or a result of military appointed politicians being
more concerned and comfortable with domestic over foreign affairs. At the time
many observers perceived the US's response to the coup and its suspension of
democracy, including the legally mandated stoppage of US$29 million worth of
military and State Department aid programs, as mild. (See
Thaksin's loss, US's gain Asia Times Online, February 9, 2007.)
They noted that the Cobra Gold exercises were not interrupted by sanctions and
that then-US ambassador Ralph "Skip" Boyce was the first to meet with
military-appointed prime minister and former army commander General Surayud
Chulanont. The US-based Congressional Research Service wrote in a 2009 report,
"Following the 2006 coup, many US government officials cited fears that China
would take advantage of any withdrawal of US military assistance to establish
stronger defense relations between Bangkok and Beijing.
"US officials faced the challenge of expressing disapproval for the rollback of
democracy while not sacrificing what many view as a crucial relationship in the
competition for influence with China in Southeast Asia," the report said. "Many
military and diplomatic officials, wary of some aspects of Thaksin's leadership
style and more familiar with the old establishment in Bangkok, appeared to want
to maintain strong relations with the elite despite the interruption of
Previous perceptions that China's interests would be better served under a
Thaksin-led government have been somewhat tempered since Beijing distanced
itself from the self-exiled former leader. Consistent with its pragmatic
diplomacy, observers now believe Beijing would willing embrace whichever side
wins the still unresolved conflict. Thaksin fled to China ahead of a 2008 court
verdict that sentenced him to two years in prison, but he was forbidden from
using China as a base for his political activities, according to people
familiar with the situation.
China is also believed to have influenced Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to
soften his stance against Abhisit's government after a war of words threatened
to spiral into wider armed hostilities. Hun Sen has permitted Thaksin, who
serves as a honorary economic adviser to his government, and his associates,
including his former spokesman Jakrapob Penkair, to use his country as a base
for political activities. However, many saw China's hidden hand in Cambodia's
recent arrest and extradition of two Thai, UDD-aligned suspects in a bombing
attack against one of Abhisit's coalition partner's Bangkok offices.
The Chinese Embassy is known to maintain close ties to former prime minister
and army commander Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, a close Thaksin ally and chairman of
his aligned Puea Thai political party. The envoy downplayed the significance of
Chavalit's recent trip to the Chinese city of Kunming just days after Abhisit's
government accused him of playing a role in instigating protest violence and
involvement in a plot to topple the Thai monarchy. The envoy said Chavalit did
not meet with any Chinese officials during the personal visit, although he
traveled on a "dignitary" visa.
As Thailand under successive administrations cracks down on civil and political
liberties, and as the military exerts greater authority over the country's
administration during a prolonged period of emergency rule, some wonder if
certain cliques in the armed forces would prefer to move closer to China, which
unlike the US makes no pretense about promoting democracy and human rights and
in future will face fewer budgetary constraints.
To be sure, Thailand is not expected to make any sudden lurch away from the US
and towards China - unless, perhaps, Thaksin were somehow returned to power and
decided to act vengefully about his post-coup cold treatment in Washington. One
US official suggests that Thaksin would likely be held in temporary remand if
he tried to enter the US because his visa has expired and there are questions
about the validity of certain passports he holds.
Thailand's political conflict is now being waged in the court of international
opinion, with both Abhisit and Thaksin making their human rights-based cases in
the US and Europe about who should be held chiefly culpable for the recent
death and destruction. Notably, no such rights and democracy presentations are
being made to Beijing's authoritarian regime.
Indications are that Abhisit has so far made the more compelling case, despite
Thaksin's deployment of expensive international law and lobbying firms to
Washington and European capitals. Washington has acknowledged that the
pro-Thaksin UDD was indeed armed, despite its leaders' claims to a non-violent
struggle for democracy.
A recent US House of Representatives resolution endorsed Abhisit's five-point
reconciliation roadmap and called for the country's problems to be resolved
"peacefully and through democratic means". Thaksin's personal lawyer and former
foreign minister Noppadol Pattama had pushed for the introduction of a section
that encouraged the government to negotiate with him, but no such language was
included in the final resolution, according to Kiat.
Despite that vote of confidence, the US is clearly diversifying its Southeast
Asian strategic portfolio to mitigate its exposure to Thailand's political
instability. One Washington insider suggests strategic ties to Thailand were
considerably more attractive when the country was widely viewed as a democratic
role model, rather than backslider, in the region.
That diversification was seen in the US's first ever joint military exercises
with Cambodia, known as Angkor Sentinel, earlier this month. Anonymous Thai
military sources quoted in the local Bangkok Post expressed concerns about the
US-Cambodian exercises at a time tensions still run high over territorial
disputes along their shared border. Some analysts suggest Thailand has faded as
the US's favored partner in Southeast Asia as the Barack Obama administration
prioritizes relations with a more democratic Indonesia.
Recent unrest in Thailand threatened still crucial US strategic interests,
including access to U-Tapao, and the potential for sustained instability has
clearly sparked a rethink in Washington about whether it can and should rely on
Thailand as a key strategic partner. Yet any vacuum left in a US strategic
departure, analysts predict, would be eagerly filled by China despite the
When anti-Thaksin protesters seized Bangkok's international airports in 2008,
China arranged the largest foreign evacuation in its history by airlifting
3,000 of its nationals out of the country. But many believe that China's
commercial and cultural pushes into Thailand are the front edge of a
longer-view strategy to neutralize the US's strategic presence on its southern
littoral. And while Thailand's destabilizing conflict is in neither
superpower's immediate interests, it seems China has gained where the US has
Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor.