All eyes on Srettha’s delicate balancing act in Thailand
BANGKOK – China’s navy quietly sailed into the shallow, energy-rich Gulf of Thailand earlier this month for Blue Strike 2023, a joint naval exercise to increase Beijing’s influence with Thailand’s newly elected, military-backed civilian government.
Meanwhile, in his first political foray onto the international stage, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin flew to New York and attended the UN General Assembly September 18-24, where he met US President Joe Biden and other politicians along with Google, Microsoft, Tesla, the US Chamber of Commerce, and the US-ASEAN Business Council.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is also eager to scrutinize and charm Thailand’s new prime minister, and invited Srettha to visit Beijing October 8-10.
The US and China are eyeing the new administration and its views on international investment, tourism, trade, and weapons purchases. On August 22, Parliament ended three months of bickering and agreed on a pliant civilian-led, 11-party coalition government fronted by Srettha, a real estate tycoon.
“Thailand is like a sick person,” Srettha said on September 11 in his first policy statement to Parliament. “Tourism and spending are recovering so slowly, that there is the risk of economic recession,” he said.
Washington and Beijing are also assessing the US-trained military’s September 1 promotions of officers and factions, to see if there are any shifts in Thailand’s attempt to balance its relations with the two superpowers.
“The selection of General Charoenchai Hinthao [also spelled Jaroenchai Hintao] as army commander was a big win for military officials closer to the USA,” Paul Chambers, Naresuan University lecturer in Southeast Asian affairs, said in an interview.
“The same can be said for the choice of Royal Thai Armed Forces Commander General Songwit Noonpakdi, and new Air Force Commander ACM [Air Chief Marshal] Panpakdee Pattanakul who favors US F-16s and F-35s for Thailand.
“Only the Thai navy remains tilted toward China,” Chambers said.
The Pentagon is especially concerned about Bangkok’s military support for US security interests amid confrontations between Washington and Beijing over territorial claims in the South China Sea and Taiwan’s political survival.
“Thailand is trying to keep away from the US-China differences about Taiwan,” Chambers said.
In 2003, then-president George W Bush designated Thailand a “non-NATO treaty ally,” and the two nations’ militaries are closely linked after decades of training and experience.
China’s Defense Minister Li Shangfu said in June: “Attempts to push for NATO-like [alliances] in the Asia-Pacific is a way of kidnapping regional countries and exaggerating conflicts and confrontations.”
Those alliances will “plunge the Asia-Pacific into a whirlpool of disputes and conflicts,” Li said.
“Against the backdrop of the Asia-Pacific currently facing some security challenges, China is willing to jointly maintain regional stability with Thailand and ensure lasting security in the region,” he added.
China wants “more fruitful cooperation between the two militaries, especially between the two armies,” Li said.
A former Thai foreign minister, Kantathi Suphamongkhon, said, “Even though it is unlikely that we would see intentional US-China military clashes in the region, conflicts may come about by accident when tensions are high.
“Thailand will try to maintain good relations with Washington and Beijing as much as possible,” Kantathi said in an interview.
Washington also has other ways to woo Bangkok.
“The US needs to engage more with Thailand in terms of investment, trade, ODA [official development assistance], US military aid and joint US-Thai military exercises,” Chambers said.
“The Srettha government will likely continue the balanced hedging policy between China and the United States because such a policy enhances Thai business interests,” he said.
“We have good relations with China and the United States,” Srettha told a recent forum. “We have to be neutral. Not leaning one way or the other.”
“This is a coalition government comprising two main factions, one led by Thaksin Shinawatra and the other by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, so it is likely that the muddling through of balancing relations with China, and with the USA, will likely continue,” another former foreign minister, Kasit Piromya, said in an interview.
Those two factions are a twisted, forced marriage.
Thaksin was an elected civilian prime minister from 2001-06 but was ousted in a military coup supported by royalists, wealthy influential families, and other conservatives in September 2006.
Their animosity against the populist leader intensified when he fled abroad, dodging court convictions for financial crimes and sentenced to years of imprisonment in absentia.
Recently, however, the two enemies joined forces, enabling Thaksin to return to Bangkok last month. His combined sentences of ten years were shrunk to one year in prison.
He currently is in the Police General Hospital amid accusations he is enjoying plush treatment instead of a grotty cell.
Conservative elites appear to have united with Thaksin against a new, more popular usurper, Move Forward Party’s Pita Limjaroenrat, who threatens all of their entrenched interests.
In May, Pita won a majority in Parliament’s elected House, campaigning to weaken the monarchy’s tight protection against criticism, and strip the military of its political and commercial powers, end the draft, and oversee military promotions.
As a result, the military-appointed Senate and elected House rejected Pita’s bid to become prime minister.
Instead, Parliament supported Srettha and the Peua Thai party, which is considered de facto under Thaksin’s control – even from his hospital bed through relatives, lawyers and other supporters who are allowed visits.
As such, the seemingly agreeable Prime Minister Srettha is already perceived as Thaksin’s puppet.
Srettha’s experience among Bangkok’s luxury real estate market and international businesses, however, may help him promote Thailand amid hot competition by other investment-friendly, dynamic Southeast Asian neighbors.
“The US is paying more attention to Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia. Thailand is somewhat overlooked and ignored,” Kasit said. “So it is up to the new Thai government to make itself heard.”
The good news for Washington, after decades of financial aid to Bangkok, is its favorable image among many Thai politicians.
“Not one Thai political party is anti-US,” he said.
“The soft power of the US, such as education, scientific and technological achievements, should be more promoted. Cultural exchanges should be reactivated by more frequent visits to Thailand by political leaders, senior government officials and academics,” former foreign minister Kasit said.
The Royal Thai Navy, meanwhile, wants to purchase Chinese submarines even though the US is training Thai submariners along Thailand’s west coast in the Andaman Sea, which opens to the Bay of Bengal and splashes Myanmar, Bangladesh, India’s east coast and Sri Lanka.
“Thailand’s Beijing-leaning foreign policy began under Peua Thai’s original founder and prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, and has continued unabated under every Thai administration since,” Bangkok-based Benjamin Zawacki, author of “Thailand: Shifting Ground Between the US and a Rising China,” said in an interview.
“Be mindful of the connection between the origin of Thailand’s initial pro-China leanings, and who is now back in power,” Zawacki said.
China’s annual Blue Strike joint naval exercise with Thailand this month reportedly included more than 2,500 personnel from both countries, a Chinese submarine, amphibious dock landing ship, guided-missile frigate and a supply ship.
A Royal Thai Navy photograph showed China’s Changcheng submarine at Thailand’s Sattahip port near Bangkok on the first day of the exercise, with white-uniformed Thai navy officers walking a gangplank into its top hatch below the sub’s conning tower.
The land and sea training in the Gulf of Thailand and at a marine camp onshore at Sattahip included “sniping tactics, jungle survival, and maritime search and rescue,” the Bangkok Post reported. Both sides also learned about “chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear defense.”
In May, Thailand awarded the US multinational energy corporation Chevron’s Thailand unit 15,030 square kilometers under the gulf to explore for and produce petroleum. The new block is reportedly next to a Chevron natural gas production block and is expected to contain more gas.
Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his two new nonfiction books, “Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. — Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York” and “Apocalyptic Tribes, Smugglers & Freaks” are available here.