America Should Be Realistic About its Alliance with Thailand
What should the United States do when it no longer shares strategic interests with an ally? The answer hinges on what Washington thinks is more important — preventing alliances from falling apart or making sure they are coherent. On the one hand, maintaining alliances is more important than ever, as China seeks to create a new system of international regimes and norms. The competition with Beijing will primarily be a contest for partners. On the other hand, an alliance must be grounded in a shared assessment of threats. If the underlying rationale for a relationship no longer makes sense, maintaining the fiction of an alliance may do more harm than good.
In Asia, this dilemma is best observed in the American alliance with Thailand. For decades, the relationship has served American and Thai interests — each saw the other as a bulwark against Chinese and Vietnamese influence in Southeast Asia. However, times have changed, and the two countries share few strategic interests. Furthermore, Thai democracy is a distant hope as it slides further into authoritarianism. Relatedly, the military-backed elites in Bangkok are interested in closer ties with Beijing, whom it sees as a more reliable defense partner and committed to perpetuating their autocratic rule. The military has positioned itself as the guarantor of the Thai monarchy, and has deemed democratic politics as a means to end the monarchy and establish a republic. These trends aren’t going away. As a result, Washington should have realistic expectations for what it can expect from Thailand to avoid misunderstandings and to better advance its interests in the region.
American and Thai Strategic Interests Increasingly Diverge
Thailand no longer shares strategic interests with the United States. Washington views China as the primary challenge to its interests in Asia. Thailand, on the other hand, does not. The only existential threat Bangkok’s elites are concerned about are those posed at home by forces of democracy.
This strategic drift has been building for decades. During the Cold War, Thailand was a frontline state fending off Vietnamese and Chinese aggression in the region. At the end of the Cold War, Thailand was a key partner in turning “battlefields to marketplaces” and serving as a democratic model and diplomatic leader in the region. Perceptions changed in 1998, when the United States failed to bail out Thailand during the Asian Economic crisis. Despite Thailand becoming a major non-NATO ally in 2003, U.S.-Thai relations have been strained for years. Thailand has had two coups since 2006, which has limited military-to-military engagement. The annual Cobra Gold military exercises — conducted since 1982 — have continued, but only because they are multilateral, while some were downgraded immediately following the 2006 and 2014 coups to focus on non-kinetic humanitarian assistance and disaster relief activities. Increasingly, Thai military officials have publicly questioned the utility of the exercise.
Fundamentally, Thailand does not view China as a revisionist power or a military threat. Instead, Bangkok considers Beijing a benign hegemon, the country’s largest economic partner, and an ally in its fight to prevent the return of Thai democracy. The 2018 U.S. National Security Strategy, on the other hand, clearly identifies China as a “revisionist power” that is out to undermine American influence and leadership of the rules based order. Bangkok is not simply trying to avoid being forced to take sides — it’s increasingly siding with Beijing over Washington on key issues.
One of the justifications for continuing the U.S.-Thai alliance is access to Thailand’s Utapao airbase. The base is an important logistics hub for U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific. Indeed, in 2016 Thailand made $30 million in upgrades to the naval airfield, in part to facilitate U.S. logistics. But Thailand does not always let the United States use it. For example, Thailand allowed access for humanitarian assistance after the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami and 2015 earthquake in Nepal. But Thailand refused access to support humanitarian operations in support of the Rohingya during the 2017-18 ethnic cleansing campaign by the Myanmar government.
Don’t Hold Your Breath on Thai Democracy Being Restored
Thailand’s latest authoritarian turn began with a coup in 2006. Despite a new constitution, authoritarian policies, and the dissolution of anti-junta parties, the military was unable to prevent the return of their democratic foes in 2011. By 2014, the Thai military staged another coup, and since then has become even more authoritarian, stubbornly clinging to power.
Washington’s hopes of restoring full bilateral military relations has led it to be overly optimistic about the “signifcant progress” towards the “restoration of democracy” in Thailand. Although elections were held in March 2019, they were shambolic. The junta drafted the constitution in a way that intentionally weakened political parties. The Thai senate is fully appointed by the military. The military controlled the Electoral Commission that gerrymandered and mal-apportioned seats to disadvantage the opposition. In November 2019, the constitutional court disqualified the charismatic head of the Future Forward Party, which garnered the third largest number of seats. The following month, the Electoral Commission recommended that the Constitutional Court disband the party, prompting the threat of more unrest. The junta has continued its hold on power, and the United States has signed off on this whitewash. All this has occurred as the King Rama X has tried to consolidate power in what appears to be a move to restore aspects of an absolute monarchy.
A strong and stable Thailand has long been in the United States’ strategic interests, and the military is a key interlocutor. But recently, the Thai military has been the source of the country’s instability. The military governments have proven inept at running the economy or combating corruption beyond targeting political rivals. Even the post-junta government is seeing some of the slowest growth in ASEAN and has revised its economic forecasts down again. Foreign direct investment, according to the World Bank, fell from $14.8 billion in 2010 to $8.1 billion in 2017. In a sign that the business community is tiring of the Thai political stasis, from the country in 2019 alone. More importantly, Thailand has the highest inequality rates in the region, let alone the world, with skyrocketing Gini coefficients since 2006, as the military rewarded the royalist elites whose support they need to stay in power.
Of greater concern than the economic mismanagement has been the fundamental weakening of Thai political institutions after years of military rule. The judiciary is thoroughly politicized — and its ability to mediate conflicts through the rule of law has lessened — elite conflict is soaring, and corruption under military rule has skyrocketed. In certain categories of the Fragile States Index survey, Thailand fares particularly poorly. It has the worst score in the region for “factionalized elites” and second worse for “group grievances.” Thailand’s score for “state legitimacy” has steadily fallen, as has its human rights record. Thailand’s media environment is among the most repressive in all of Southeast Asia, ranking just below communist party states of Vietnam and Laos according to Reporters Without Borders. In the 2019 Freedom House survey, Thailand is ranked as “Not Free,” and receives similar grades in the annual Economist’s Democracy Index.
Thailand’s Deepening Defense Ties with Beijing
Since the 2014 coup, Thailand has rapidly deepened its defense relationship with China.
While the United States cut $4.7 million in financing for arms following the 2014 coup, China stepped into the void, offering an array of major weapons systems on cheap terms and without any conditionality. Moreover, Thailand has remained incensed that Washington quickly lifted sanctions on Egypt’s receipt of weapons and $1.3 billion in military assistance following Egypt’s coup in 2013.
Coups, it seems, are good for a military’s bottom line. The Royal Thai Armed Forces’ budget has gone up eight percent annually since 2006, far exceeding inflation. The military will receive a $7.7 billion budget in 2020, with an additional $3 billion for other security-related issues. The budget has increased by over $1 billion since the 2014 coup, and yet there has been no increase in external threats.
In 2018, the military launched a 10-year modernization program, and China plays a key role. Thailand has purchased a Yuan-class submarine from China, despite not having any strategic rationale for the weapon system other than competing with Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, and now Myanmar, who are also buying submarines. Bangkok is moving to purchase a second, with an option for a third. Each submarine costs $390 million. The $1.03 billion deal was the largest arms deal in Thailand’s history and included crew training and a 10-year payment plan. In addition, China is building submarine facilities at Sattahip naval base, which the PLA-Navy now has access to. The base is a longtime port of call for the U.S. Navy, which much now contend with increased Chinese intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. In September 2019, Thailand contracted to buy a Chinese-made 25,000 ton Type 71E LPD amphibious ship, in a $200 million deal. Other arms imports from China include CX-1 anti-ship cruise missiles and CM-708UNB Sea Eagle submarine-launched anti-ship missiles.
While the Thai Navy is clearly the driver of deepened defense acquisitions with China, the Thai Army has also benefited. In 2016, the army contracted with NORINCO to buy 50 VT-4 main battle tanks, to replace the 1950s era M-41 U.S.-built tanks, a $231 million deal completed in December 2019. Thailand will take order of the first tranche of 34 VN-1 armored personnel vehicles and five other supporting vehicles.
The Thai military has also purchased rockets, artillery locating radar, and surface-to-air missiles from China, and the two countries have agreed to establish a weapons assembly and repair facility in northeastern Thailand for Chinese land-based systems.
Between 2014 and 2018, after South Korea and Ukraine, and is projected to be Thailand’s largest single supplier in the coming years. China is providing most major weapons systems and platforms. In that same time, Thailand was the world’s 27th largest arms importer, but the United States barely registered as a Thai arms provider.
The Royal Thai Armed Forces is still hedging, however. Thailand imported four Black Hawk helicopters and 37 refurbished Stryker armored vehicles from the United States. Under the $80 million agreement, the United States will provide 23 more Strykers gratis. It was the barest minimum for the sake of the alliance. In September 2019, the U.S. State Department signed off on a $400 million sale of eight AH-6i attack helicopters, 50 Hellfire missiles, and advanced guided rockets — the most significant arms deal in years.
The United States scaled back training and professional military education with the Royal Thai Armed Forces because of Leahy amendment sanctions imposed following the coups. Then again, those lessons on democracy, human rights, and civilian control over the military never really sunk in. And China has stepped into the fore. On the same sidelines of the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting meeting where U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper signed the joint vision statement, the Thai Prime Minister signed a separate cooperation agreement with the Chinese Minister of Defense, increasing the number of bilateral exercises, training, and educational exchanges.
Thailand holds bilateral air force, army, and navy drills with its Chinese counterparts on an annual basis. Indeed, no country in Southeast Asia has conducted more bilateral drills with the PLA than the Royal Thai Armed Forces. In addition, Thailand has conducted joint special operations exercise with the PLA. The number and scope of exercises are only set to grow.
And the reality is that U.S. training with the Thai military is less useful than it was in the past. Since the 2006 coup, the Thai military has not focused on professionalization, as its top leaders have remained focused on elite political machinations. The Royal Thai Armed Forces has over 1,100 general officers, allowing for ample time and opportunity to meddle in politics, governance, and business. Even their 17-year old insurgency in the ethnic Malay-dominated deep south that has cost over 7,000 lives is a low priority for the military, which has farmed out responsibility to paramilitaries and the police.
Making Thailand Safe for Autocracy
Despite growing ties, Thailand does not see China as a completely benign force. It appears to have been caught off guard by the planned PLA-Navy base and military-grade airstrip in neighboring Cambodia. Bangkok is aware that China’s interests are pursued at the expense of Thailand, in particular the impact that Chinese damming of the Mekong River has had on Thai agriculture. In 2019, the Mekong was at its lowest levels ever, threatening Thai food security. China has intermittently released water, but seeks to continue building 13 dams. While Thailand has been quick to join the new Chinese economic initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative, there is a concern about being saddled with costly projects in China’s “debt trap diplomacy.” Moreover, Thailand runs a significant annual trade deficit with China, which also dumps agricultural products into Thailand.
However, Thailand does not view China as a military threat, and Thai military elites now see China as a more reliable guarantor of their hold on power. China has done much to provide diplomatic cover for the junta’s assault on democracy, rule of law, human rights, and press freedom.
Thailand has no credible external threat. Its military and ultra-royalist elites are consumed with the domestic political opposition that threaten their hold on power. That is why they are so concerned with the Future Forward Party, which has tried to end conscription, cut the military’s budget, and cap the number of generals, and has promoted autonomy as the basis for a durable political settlement to end the insurgency in the deep south, as well as championed constitutional reform to end military involvement in politics. It is likely that the government will at some point tire of democracy and the political opposition and begin to govern through extralegal means.
President Donald Trump’s administration — which still does not have its ambassador in Thailand (though a political appointee has been approved by the Senate) — will probably say little about the dismal human rights situation and democratic regression in Thailand. Thailand has clearly benefitted from the Trump administration’s lack of interest in human rights or democracy promotion. Washington all but sanctioned the military’s hold on power by inviting the coup leader to the White House in 2017. But the reality is the two sides will not be able to reconcile their political values unless there is wholesale political change in Thailand. And the most durable American alliances are based on shared values and commitment to democracy.
China will remain committed to making Thailand safe for autocracy. This reflects a fundamental shift in the values and interests of the Thai military elites. And it is not just that China is able and willing to corrupt the Thai military leadership. During the Cold War, China was an exporter of communism that threatened Thailand’s political institutions. The United States and Thailand had shared security interests. And while the United States and Thailand didn’t have shared values in democracy then, the Thai military and royalist elites viewed the United States as the guarantor of their survival and interests. Today, they see China as far more vested in the continuation of their rule. While the Thai Army chief Gen. Apirat Kongsompong was educated in the United States and wishfully thought to have American proclivities, he has repeatedly threatened to stage a coup should the government be seen as challenging the military and monarchy’s interests.
The Thai government wants what China has put on offer — artificial intelligence, internet controls, and surveillance technology for social control. China has exported its artificial intelligence-powered system of public surveillance, referred to as “Smart Cities,” to the paranoid Thai regime. Megvii, one of the largest purveyors of the facial recognition surveillance software opened a joint venture in Thailand. The government adopted a Chinese-style Computer Crimes Law and is seeking greater AI-based surveillance. In February 2019, Bangkok defied Washington’s calls and allowed Huawei to open their “5G testbed” and $22.5 million data center. By October 2019, Huawei seemed set to dominate the nation’s 5G network.
Thailand has returned the favor and done China’s bidding. Not only has it been deafeningly uncritical of China’s mass incarceration of over one million Uighurs, Thailand also forcibly repatriated 196 Uighurs who disappeared into China’s gulag as soon as they were forcibly returned in 2015. This likely led to a retaliatory terrorist attack on Thailand in August 2015.
Thailand has acquiesced to a greater Chinese security presence in the region. Chinese security forces now sail down to the Thai border on the Mekong River and have been active in transnational law enforcement operations, especially against drug lords. The 88th joint patrol between Chinese and Thai forces on the Mekong was just completed.
Washington Needs to Be Realistic About Thailand
On the sidelines of the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting in November 2019, Secretary Esper and Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha, who is concurrently the minister of defense, signed the U.S.-Thailand Joint Vision Statement. The document, which was the latest in a string of anodyne commitments to the alliance, tries to align Thailand’s stated interests outlined in the “20 Year National Policy” that was drafted by the former military junta with the 2018 U.S. National Security Strategy to establish a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” As its alliance structure is suffering from self-inflicted wounds across Asia, Washington is keen to bolster ties with a low-cost ally falling into Beijing’s embrace. It was the first joint vision statement since 2012. And while it focused on areas of commonality, it glossed over key differences.
America should no longer ignore negative trends in the relationship. Fifteen years of constant military meddling in Thai politics have fundamentally weakened state capacity. The Thai military is the cause of the country’s political instability. And as long as it continues to thwart the democratic aspirations of the public in its own parochial interests and self-enrichment, Thailand will be weaker and more politically unstable. There is no sign that the military has any interest in returning to the barracks and professionalizing itself, unless there is a wholesale political change, or a monarch enforces it. Neither is likely in the short term.
American and Thai strategic concerns are sharply out of alignment. Although Thailand is likely to support the United States in sanctioning North Korea, any U.S. Indo-Pacific Command or Pentagon plan that assumes that Thailand will offer the United States certain advantages — such as overflight, port access, or other facilities — in a conflict with China is circumspect. Thailand is no longer a key partner for advancing U.S. interests in the region, especially vis-à-vis China.
One of the key ways that Thailand supported the United States was through Thailand’s leadership of ASEAN. Thailand no longer plays that role. Thailand held the rotating chair of ASEAN in 2019, and it never put forward an agenda that Beijing would view as hostile. In particular, Thailand has worked to downplay tensions in the South China Sea that have pit Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia against China. We should expect a different tone as Vietnam assumes the chair of ASEAN on Jan. 1, 2020.
To be fair, the United States is not looking like a reliable ally in its own right. President Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership within days of his inauguration, with no other regional economic architecture in place. President Trump has publicly questioned Article 5 commitments with allies, berated them for their failure to share the burden of collective defense, unilaterally pulled out of international agreements, regimes, and laws, picked trade fights with allies, and engaged in a very transactional foreign policy. With its host of sanctions from issues regarding human trafficking to human rights, the United States is seen as both preachy and unreliable. The U.S.-led liberal international order is coming apart. In America’s absence, China has swooped in. Beijing is committed to driving the United States from the western Pacific and wrecking America’s network of alliances.
Take the Long View
How should Washington and Bangkok reconcile their strategic disconnect? Indeed, is it worth even trying? Despite the contradictions in the relationship, it still serves the political interests of both Washington and Bangkok to avoid a public and messy divorce. The foreign policy and defense establishment in Washington does care about alliances and partnerships — often to a fault. This is a strategic asset that China and Russia largely lack. Thailand is clearly hedging by doing the barest minimum to keep the alliance alive. Though that is a very poor foundation for a sustained partnership, it does suggest some underlying mistrust of China.
The political situations in both Bangkok and Washington will change in time, hopefully creating an opportunity to revisit shared interests and values. Beijing, too, is likely to change the overall strategic context by over-playing its hand. Moreover, ending the alliance in a public and explicit manner would have a deleterious impact on America’s other alliances in the region, which are already under stress. Both countries still offer much to each other, such as in law enforcement cooperation, but the two sides need a serious and honest assessment of the overall alliance. At present the alliance serves both capitals politically, but not strategically, and that may suffice for now.
Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College where he specializes in Southeast Asian politics and security affairs. The views here are his own, and do not reflect the National War College or the Department of Defense. You can follow him @ZachAbuza.
CORRECTION: A previous version of the article stated, “While the United States cut $4.7 billion in financing for arms following the 2014 coup, China stepped into the void, offering an array of major weapons systems on cheap terms and without any conditionality.” This was incorrect. The figure was $4.7 million.