The Trump administration’s strategy to engage with Thailand appears to be counterproductive. Trump saved the Thai authoritarians, but has weakened the US-Thailand security alliance amid the rising Chinese influence.
In early September 2020, the US Department of Defense released its Annual Report to Congress on Military and Security Development Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020. One of the key issues highlighted in the report is the growing global presence of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). China, according to the report, “has likely considered Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan as locations for PLA military logistics facilities.” What makes the report’s statement unique is that, with the exception of Thailand, none of the listed countries is a security ally of the US. By reversing the Obama administration’s tough diplomacy to Thailand, which focused on human rights and democracy, the Trump administration invited General Prayut Chan-o-cha to visit Washington in late 2017. Trump’s invitation signaled the US’ willingness to re-engage with Thailand in order to balance against the rising Chinese influence in the broader Southeast Asia region. Trump has saved the Thai authoritarian regime but has failed to strengthen the U.S.-Thailand security alliance amid the rising Chinese influence.
After the Cold War ended in early 1990s, the U.S.-Thailand relationship arrived at a crossroad. U.S. strategic interests in Southeast Asia shifted from the threats of communism to the promotion of universal values, such as democracy, human rights, and media freedom. However, these shifts were tantamount to the growing frictions between the US and Thailand. The US started criticising Thailand for the first time after the Thai Army Chief General Suchinda Kraprayoon staged a military coup to oust the democratically-elected government of Chatichai Choonhavan in February 1991. Thousands of Thais took the streets to protest against the coup. The Thai junta responded with a violent crackdown on the protesters from 17 to 20 May 1992. According to Amnesty International, 52 people were killed and 696 injured, while 175 others went missing during the crackdown. Several protesters were reportedly arrested by the security forces during and after the crackdown. The May 1992 massacre in Bangkok is widely known in Thailand as “Black May” or “Bloody May.” To punish the Thai junta, the U.S. cut off its military assistance to Thailand.
As time passed by, sporadic diplomatic clashes between the U.S. and Thailand over the issues of democracy, human rights, and media freedom continued. During his official trip to Thailand in early May 2010, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt Campbell met with some key leaders of the pro-Thaksin “Red Shirts,” sparking a fierce diplomatic confrontation with the Thai government led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who rose to power with the military wing’s support. It is critically important to recall that during the period of rising political tension between the government and the pro-Thaksin “Red Shirts,” Abhisit and other senior cabinet officials regularly met, and sometimes slept, at the base of the 11th Infantry Battalion of the Royal Guard.
On May 10, 2010, the Thai Minister of Foreign Affairs Kasit Piromya summoned US Ambassador Eric John to protest against the US interference in the Thai domestic political issues. Moreover, in July 2010 Thailand dispatched Kiat Sitheeamorn, a special envoy to Washington, “to rebuke and urge the Obama administration to refrain from further interference in the conflict.” During his interview with Asia Times Online, Kiat stressed, “although the US has always been ready to extend a helping hand when asked, it is up to us to request, and we have not asked … [T]here was a lack of understanding of a very complex situation.”
More importantly, in the wake of the military coup by General Prayut Chan-o-cha to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on May 22, 2014, Daniel Russel, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, during his visit to Thailand in January 2015, publicly criticised Thailand’s martial law and ongoing human rights abuses in his speech at Chulalongkorn University. Don Pramatwinai, the then Thai permanent secretary and now the deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, summoned Patrick Murphy, the then US charge d’affaires and now the ambassador to Cambodia, to complain. Don, according to a news report by The Bangkok Post, proudly claimed the victory: “I met with Mr. Murphy to tell him that Thai people are disappointed with the reaction from the US. This is a wound that the US inflicted on Thai people. I hope that in the future the US will make proper and constructive comments.”
Yet, on November 25, 2015, a similar diplomatic clash broke out again when a newly-appointed US ambassador, Glyn Davies, publicly expressed his deep concerns over the restrictions on media freedom and the abuses of lèse majesté law. Davies’s speech drew fierce criticisms from the ultra-royalists and key leaders of the anti-Thaksin groups, the political wings led by the Thai conservative elites with close affiliations to the royal palace and the king. Arthit Urairat, a former House speaker and current president of Rangsit University, urged Ambassador Davies “be sent back to Washington and be declared persona non grata.”
The promotion of democracy and human rights and the frequent interferences in the Thai domestic politics by the US have subsequently turned into the sources of strategic mistrust between the US and the Thai conservative elites, particularly the Thai military generals. According to “Tipping the Balance in Southeast Asia? Thailand, the United States and China,” a joint research study between the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Australian National University (ANU) in 2017, the Thai military elites perceived that the US could have posed “greater potential threats” to Thailand than China. The Thai military elites are still pre-occupied by the conspiracy theories masterminded by the Western countries, including the US, to interfere in the Thai domestic politics. The Thai government has perceived that the US, the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, and some EU countries, including Germany, are supporting the protests by the Thai students behind the scene. In December 2019, General Apirat Kongsompong, the Thai army chief, argued that Thailand “is facing a ‘proxy crisis‘ created by a mastermind who cannot directly confront the government.”
By early August 2020, as the protests by the Thai students and activists spread across Thailand, some Facebook pages belonging to the Thai conservative groups circulated several pieces of poorly-verified information linking a number of the US-based institutions. The Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and Heinrich Boell Stiftung in Germany and Amnesty International in the United Kingdom were also linked to the protests by those Facebook pages. The US quickly denied involvement and released a statement refuting these claims. Even though there is no evidence to prove any US involvement in the protests, it is unlikely that the strategic mistrust of the Thai conservative elites will subside.
Besides the issues of Thai domestic politics, the US-Thailand relationship has also been strained by its asymmetry. Even though Thailand is a US security ally, the Thai government does not enjoy an equal status when it comes to trade and security negotiations. The US’ alleged unfair treatments have generated “the vacillating sentiments from Thais toward the United States.” A case of the procurement proposal approved by the US to sell advanced medium range air-to-air missile (AMRAAM) to the Royal Thai Air Force, for instance, clearly highlighted the resentment of the Thai military toward the US military. The US agreed in principle to sell the AMRAAM missiles to Thailand on the condition that the missiles be stored in the US, raising the question of why the Thai military had to pay for them if they cannot be stationed in Thailand. Such asymmetry in relations, according to a Thai military officer, exists not only with the Air Force, but the Navy and the Army as well.
Whether Thailand will host the Chinese military base in the future remains unclear. But what is clear is that Thailand has leaned towards China since 2014, while the US-Thailand diplomatic relations continue to sour over the issues of democracy, human rights, and the growing strategic mistrust. How well Thailand balances its relations with the US and China depends not only on the developments in the US-China relations, but also Thailand’s domestic politics.
Sek Sophal holds a Masters degree in Asia Pacific Studies from Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University. He is a researcher for the Center for Democracy Promotion, Ritsumeikan Center for Asia Pacific Studies, at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University and a guest columnist at the Bangkok Post and Southeast Asia Globe.
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