'Bamboo Swirling in the Wind': Thailand's foreign policy imbalance between China and the United States.

AuthorBusbarat, Pongphisoot

The rise of China has transformed the political and economic landscape of the Asia-Pacific region. China is undeniably the new Asian powerhouse of the twenty-first century that has propelled the region's economies amid difficulties in other parts of the globe. However, despite the opportunities that China's growth offers, there are concerns over China's increasing influence and behaviour in Northeast and Southeast Asia. Economic dependence on China may constrain autonomous policymaking in smaller countries, especially on policies that impinge on Beijing's national interests. Countries across the region are concerned that China is transforming its economic strength into military might, and that its armed forces have become more assertive in the maritime domain. In the face of a rising China, many Asian countries believe that the United States remains the best guarantor of regional stability. As a result, they have facilitated an increased US military presence as part of the Obama administration's Asian pivot or rebalance. (1) However, regional states cannot be assured about the future, as historical experience is a reminder that given the vagaries of international politics, relying on the protection of an external power is not a long-term solution. (2) The United States may reduce its presence in Asia, as it did after the Vietnam War. Therefore, a general policy practice--especially in Southeast Asia--is to "hedge" against such an outcome. (3) In other words, regional states prefer the flexibility and pragmatism in their interactions with Washington and Beijing by continuing their engagement with China in regional affairs while keeping the United States involved as a counterweight.

Despite the common stance of maintaining a balance between the United States and China, an effective hedging strategy is increasingly delicate and difficult to sustain. Recently, various factors have pushed some countries towards one power and pulled them away from the other. Maritime disputes between China and a number of Asian countries, including Japan in the East China Sea and Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei in the South China Sea, are good examples. Rising tensions in the South China Sea has resulted in Vietnam and the Philippines moving closer to the United States in an effort to deter further Chinese assertiveness. (4)

For Thailand, pursuing a flexible policy towards the Great Powers is not a new diplomatic strategy. The historical legacy of Thailand's interaction with outsiders has shaped a diplomatic culture that values flexibility and pragmatism in its foreign policy. It has been dubbed "bamboo bending with the wind", suggesting a policy that is "always solidly rooted, but flexible enough to bend whichever way the wind blows in order to survive". (5) Guided by the principles of flexibility and pragmatism throughout its modern history, Thailand has managed to mitigate major security threats, including European colonialism in the nineteenth century, the Japanese occupation during the Second World War and the communist expansion in Southeast Asia during the Cold War. However, as with other mainland Southeast Asian states, since the end of the Cold War Thailand has faced difficulties resisting China's influence, and thus on a number of policy issues, Bangkok has gradually tilted towards Beijing. Recent developments in Thai politics and the country's foreign policy cast doubt on whether Thailand is skillful enough to maintain its traditional balancing diplomacy. Most significantly, the military coup in May 2014 has widened the rift between Thailand and the United States, and the junta has moved closer to China. (6)

This article assesses Thai foreign policy and argues that the rise of China has tested the effectiveness of Thailand's flexible diplomacy. Although Thailand generally manages to maintain close ties with both Washington and Beijing, its balancing act is more ad hoc than a well-crafted strategy. Bangkok's inability to keep a fine balance is also exacerbated by two interrelated domestic factors: the upsurge of nationalism and political polarization. Rather than "bending with the wind", as conventional wisdom would have it, the author believes Thailand's current diplomacy can best be described as "swirling in the wind". This metaphor suggests a foreign policy decision-making process that is highly sensitive to the surrounding external environment and tends to change abruptly in response to immediate pressures. In this context, this article examines four case studies of Thailand's policy responses to China and the United States, in addition to domestic political factors.

Thailand's Diplomatic Culture: "Bamboo Bending with the Wind"

The flexible nature of Thai foreign policy can be viewed through the legacy of the Hindu-Buddhist cosmological concept of mandala which underpins the ancient state system in mainland Southeast Asia. (7) Under this system, the weaker, often smaller, polities acknowledged the superiority of the most powerful kingdoms and submitted themselves as tributaries. The strong kingdoms were perceived simultaneously as potential threats to the survival of the weaker polities and as effective counter-balancers to guarantee the autonomy of the less powerful kingdoms. Notably, the loyalty of the weaker was not exclusive to one of the stronger, but was shared among multiple power nodes. This resulted in a system in which there were intersecting spheres of influence over smaller kingdoms. For example, the Khmer kings recognized both Siam (Thailand] and Annam (Vietnam] as their patrons during the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries by sending tribute as a symbol of acceptance of their suzerainty over the Cambodian kingdom. The mandala concept of state interaction informed Siam in its responses to security challenges following the arrival of European colonialists in the mid-nineteenth century. The ability to be flexible in switching support from one power to balance another "is always in the interest of Thailand" in order to protect its vital interests, i.e. sovereignty and territorial integrity. (8) Therefore, the ability to evaluate the external environment and maintain flexibility became a core value in the conduct of Thai foreign policy.

The principle of flexibility enables Thailand to achieve two goals: first, avoid conflict with a major power; and second, maintain the status quo with regard to the country's sovereignty and security. In essence, Thailand understands its relative insignificance in Great Power politics and that it could be abandoned by a Great Power ally at any time. Thus, Thailand needs to manoeuvre its relations with external powers so that it will not be negatively affected by their rivalry. This dimension reflects the realist paradigm of thought within the Thai foreign policy elite that conceives of Thailand as a small state that lacks power in quantitative terms, especially military might, and is ultimately concerned about its survival in the international system. (9) A small power generally "considers that it can never, acting alone or in a small group, make a significant impact on the system". (10) It thus often "feel[s] threatened, to some significant and immediate sense, by the play of Great Power politics". (11) A small state ultimately prefers neutrality and non-alignment, (12) but realizes the difficulty in achieving that position and is therefore left with more realistic choices between balancing and bandwagoning with the Great Powers and diversifying its relationship with multiple powers. (13) Therefore, the flexibility to select an appropriate foreign policy to reflect accurately the surrounding environment at a particular time is deemed necessary by its leaders. Moreover, Thai foreign policy aims, as part of the state apparatus, to achieve a condition that stabilizes its core pillars --nation, religion (Buddhism) and king (14)--by "defend[ing] the nation's independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, and status in the international arena". (15)

Thailand regards the ability to be flexible and pragmatic in changing its alignment as important in defending the country's national interest in response to shifts in the international distribution of power. This was clearly evident during the Cold War, when Thailand shifted its foreign policy posture from maintaining contacts with both non-communist and communist countries immediately after the end of the Second World War, to adopting an anti-communist posture in the early 1950s, and then swinging back to rapprochement with China during Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia in the 1980s. In the post-Cold War environment, the absence of traditional security threats declined, and this enabled Thailand to pursue a more omnidirectional diplomacy. This is captured well in the remarks by former Foreign Minister Thanat Khoman in 1999:

When we know that great powers always compete for power, we must fall into nobody's arms, but maintain the policy of equidistance--not leaning too much towards anyone who will tie us so tightly that we cannot breathe comfortably. This is the principle that always guided me when I was responsible for Thai foreign affairs. (16) In a nutshell, "bending with the wind" diplomacy can be observed from Thailand's ability to justify its close ties with multiple powers without being overly concerned about losing trust with, or benefits from, any of those powers. Apart from its ability to maintain independence throughout the period of European colonial expansion in Southeast Asia in the late nineteenth century, Thailand's ability to form a de facto military alliance with China during the Cambodian crisis in the 1980s, while at the same time preserving a formal treaty alliance with the United States, is a classic example of the flexibility and pragmatism practised by Thailand's foreign policy elite. In the post-Cold War era, although Thailand's security alliance with the United States remains...

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