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    Southeast Asia
     Jul 20, 2010
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 invitation.

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 own purposes.

"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 complex situation."

Competing diplomacies
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 reconciliation plan.

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 terror".

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 testimony. (See US and Thailand: allies in torture Asia Times Online, January 25, 2008.)

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.

Ethnic brethren
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 issues.

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.

Political personalities
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 China's influence.

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 said.

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 democratic practices."

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.
Strategic shifts
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 political risks.

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 lost.

Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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