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COVID-19 and Vaccine Diplomacy in the Land of Smiles

06 Aug 2021
By Shaun Cameron
A healthcare worker takes a temperature at Thailand Bamrasnaradura Infectious Disease Institute, Ministry of Public Health. Source: UN Women/Pathumporn Thongking

Thailand’s initial response to COVID-19 was applauded internationally, but cracks have begun to appear in vaccine rollouts and new COVID-19 clusters. Throughout it all, the West has supported its ally and is engaging in vaccine diplomacy in the region.

Thailand is known colloquially as “The Land of Smiles,” a moniker that goes beyond an effective tourism slogan. The Thai language has 13 different names for smiles, varying from happiness or admiration to those masking sadness or bad intent. With smiles, often the outside image is not the reality that lies underneath. Thailand’s deteriorating position as a “beacon of democracy” has been further fractured by the COVID-19 pandemic

Since the 2014 coup that brought the Prayut government to power, the Constitution has been steadily tweaked, resulting in a weak political system that serves to strengthen the military and bureaucracy at the expense of political parties. The Constitution Drafting Committee further consulted with former Australian Chief Justice of the High Court Michael Kirby and former Attorney-General and Foreign Minister Gareth Evans in 2015, although by long awaited 2019 elections, the resulting Constitution allowed the loser of elections to lead the government anyway. The government further utilised the Electoral Commission, Constitutional Court, and National Anti-Corruption Commission to stifle opposition. A youth-led opposition party that polled third was dissolved by the Constitutional Court and its leader banned from politics for ten years. Human Rights Watch criticised the government in its World Report 2020 for human right abuses, censorship, and enforced disappearances. Pro-democracy protests began following the 2019 election and steadily increased into 2020 pandemic, with over 20,000 converging in the capital.

Thailand’s initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic was applauded on the global stage. Its population of 70 million was open to safeguarding measures such as mask-wearing, lockdown compliance, and following government health directives. As of March 2021, it was ranked fourth internationally for its COVID-19 performance, although cracks have since to appear in its response.

Thailand relies on migrant workers for industries such as construction, agriculture, and fisheries. Up to five million workers live in the kingdom, approximately half illegally, often in closely confined shanty villages. In December 2020, hundreds of Myanmar migrant workers at a seafood market were found to be COVID-19-positive, resulting in accusations of people smuggling and corrupt officials facilitating migrant trafficking into Thailand. Previous clusters had been smaller and involved a military-run boxing stadium, visiting military diplomats entering the country without quarantine, and a cluster that linked police and officials to illegal gambling dens.

The most recent outbreak has reached upwards of 20,000 cases per day. It began in April 2021, when elites such as Thai politicians, army officers, and even the Japanese ambassador were involved in a cluster at an entertainment venue that has been alleged to offer illegal services. This breakout then spread to poorer areas of the city, where overcrowding and poor sanitation contributed to a rise in daily infections from 26 on April 1 to 1,583 on April 30. This marked the beginning of the third and most devastating wave of the pandemic to hit Thailand.

The initial response to COVID-19 was surprisingly effective to Thai’s pessimistic of government capability. But as time went on, corruption, rule-breaking elites, and the government use of denial and litigation to silence critics that existed before democratic elections brought the domestic climate back to what the public were accustomed to. A single, inexperienced manufacturer of AstraZeneca that is owned by the King of Thailand brought criticism. An early reliance on less effective Sinovac vaccines has been described as a conspiracy or cover-up for its systematic maneuvering to and preference for maintaining regular Sinovac purchases from Beijing. The infection of hundreds of fully Sinovac-vaccinated healthcare workers, the attempted procurement of Moderna vaccines for army staff and families, and corrupt workers selling registrations for already hard to find vaccine appointments has further spread discontent.

The West has likely been patient with Thailand’s domestic behaviour due to its geographically and politically central position within Asia and as it is the second-largest economy within ASEAN. Thailand is a treaty ally with the United States, yet it still remains close to China. Both China and the United States have provided 1.5 million doses of Sinovac and Pfizer, respectively, while Japan gifted 1.05 million doses of AstraZeneca and Australia donated $2.8 million to support Thailand’s vaccine program. The United Kingdom has donated 415,000 doses of AstraZeneca, and a further one million doses of Pfizer have been promised by the United States for the future. These donations represent a push for engagement into Asia.

United States President Joe Biden has announced plans to deliver 500 million vaccines to nearly 100 lower-income countries, with members of the G7 promising an additional 500 million doses. Of the first allocation of 25 million, seven million vaccines are going to Asia, including to ASEAN members Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, and Indonesia, and show the determination of US engagement strategies employing vaccine diplomacy in the region. This was further outlined by the White House coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, Kurt Campbell, who emphasised the role of South East Asia in determining the success or failure of US diplomacy in the region, with the US further taking advantage of waning trust in China’s own vaccines in the region. Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam are beginning to question the use and efficacy of Sinovac. Thailand has welcomed such efforts as highlighting its foreign policy engagement with “strategic partners and close allies” through proactive vaccine diplomacy.

It appears the US and its allies are utilising vaccine diplomacy and engagement in the region as a counter to the spreading influence of China, as well as Russia, along with a shift towards a paradigm of competition in its relations with the China. Thailand represents an opportunity for the US to develop closer bilateral relations, and with ASEAN more broadly. Doing so opens the opportunity to leverage that support to influence Asian states more closely aligned with China, such as Myanmar.

Thailand has long represented an opportunity for democratic engagement for nations such as Australia and the US, despite a history of undemocratic behavior. The COVID-19 pandemic was further exacerbated in the nation due to outbreaks as a result of corruption and rule-breaking elites, but the pandemic also represented an opportunity for the US and its allies to strengthen ties with Thailand and the rest of Asia through vaccine diplomacy and engagement as an offset to Chinese influence in the region. Regardless of Thailand’s place in the powers game in Asia, it is the Thai people who will face the final results of the pandemic, perhaps with a yim soo: The “smiling in the face of an impossible struggle” smile.

Shaun Cameron is a postgraduate student in international relations at Curtin University. He is currently working in Asia, and has a background in academic research, teaching, and psychology.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.