Benjamin Zawacki explains in Foreign Policy, September 29 2017, that Thai Prime Minister Prayuth’s trip to Washington and to the White House on October 3 is just a side show. China has taken the center ring:
“Prayuth’s decree [to proceed] on the high-speed rail [plan proposed by China] not only set a precedent but revealed more subtle Chinese influence. The “China model” of authoritarian capitalism has all but replaced democracy in Thailand, as well as eroded “U.S. values” of human rights and the rule of law. A prohibition on political gatherings remains in place nearly 41 months after the coup, and elections are routinely dismissed as untimely. Military justice has expanded, and a close watch is kept over the press. Yet few Thais seem to notice or care, as the Chinese ideal of government has been embraced across all parties, factions, and political interest groups for more than a decade.”
I think Zawacki’s memory is too short. It all ended with Vietnam. As soon as the US abandoned Saigon in April 1975, Thai Prime Minister Kukrit Pramoj lost no time getting up to Beijing (July 1, 1975). It was not yet clear that “Red China” no longer had designs on Thailand as a Chinese colony, but the short-lived mostly-democratic government of PM Kukrit saw that the USA was not to be counted on in the near future to fight another war in mainland South East Asia. Thailand, in other words, was on its own with only ASEAN to back it up, for what that was worth without US ships, planes and weapons.
US military support for Thailand did not end immediately, although the emphasis in Thailand dramatically shifted from military to domestic issues between 1975 and 1990. During that time (I think, not coincidentally) many ethnic Chinese-Thai families changed to Thai language surnames and Chinese-Thai elite were incorporated into the inner circle of leadership of the country. They played an important part in helping Thailand grew to become one of the “Asian economic tigers” with annual double digit expansion of its gross national product and interest rates, and an astounding shift from agriculture to industry along with an equally amazing expansion of the middle class.
For a while trade between Thailand and the USA continued to be dominant, although many were perplexed when strong US brands disappeared from the marketplace, including all US types of automobiles. The rise of Japanese trade that replaced US products essentially screened the rise of Chinese commerce, soon to be followed by Chinese banking built on the need to secure financing for gigantic Chinese projects such as large military hardware (submarines), transportation hardware (high speed railroads) and infrastructure (trans-Asian highways).
It would be ludicrous to suggest (as I have seen commentators write) that Thailand is unaware of what it is doing when it accepts Chinese “help” and loans to build these vast structures, perhaps including a canal across the isthmus and much else. As Zawacki observes, it is a convenient bonus for the military coup leaders that the gradual shift from a close US-Thai alliance to a Thai-Chinese partnership removes the most pressing need for Thailand to defend its political and human rights policies as somehow in line with “US values.” It must be a relief for the present Thai government to be able to talk to Chinese counterparts without having to drape the conversations with these issues.
However, Zawacki is again short-sighted to infer that it is possible that “few Thais seem to notice or care, as the Chinese ideal of government has been embraced across all parties, factions, and political interest groups….” What he calls the “Chinese ideal” has been the Thai norm for decades, and probably for centuries. But, it has NOT been embraced across ALL political interest groups. A salient characteristic of the Chinese ideal, however, is to suppress dissent so it doesn’t show.
What will become obvious to careful Thai observers and analysts when PM Prayuth visits with President Trump on October 3 is that now the USA has not only lost military influence and economic clout, but the current US administration has no moral authority, either.
In fact, the only reason to stop at the White House at all is to see what can be traded for some show of a Thai middle finger in the air toward North Korea.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.