Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s “pivot to Asia” hasn’t made the turn anticipated a strategic Obama Administration move to face up to China’s growing regional aggression.
Not only has it not been able to shake loose from the Mideast chaos which Pres. Obama has tried desperately avoid, but it faces a continued Beijing push toward Southeast Asia, the Koreas and Japan. The Southeast Asians, for their part, have shown skepticism about Obama’s commitment – especially in view of their growing Chinese commercial ties and their over-the-shoulder look Beijing’s growing naval thrust.
That’s why an American statement in Bangkok last week was such a clinker: “I don’t spend a lot of time, I don’t spend any time, saying to Washington here’s how we get Thailand back. We haven’t lost Thailand,” U.S. Ambassador to Bangkok, Glyn T. Davies told reporters. He added: “I think it’s a good thing for Thailand to have a good relationship with China.”
Davies, a veteran career Foreign Service officer, might have used more diplomatic language – if as we suspect, he hadn’t intended to be quoted. If Davies sounded defensive, it might just be because relations between Washington and Bangkok have soured since the May 2014 coup, one of a long history of military takeovers and the second in a decade. The resulting junta crackdown has strained U.S.-Thai relations but been embraced by Beijing. The Thais have reciprocated with gestures such as sending back to Beijing international recognized human rights exiles and joint military exercises.
Davies has been on a campaign – presumably on instructions from Washington – since he arrived two months ago. He has gone public with U.S.’ opposition to unusually stringent lèse-majesté laws with long sentences for alleged slander against Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej. To curry popular favor, the junta has gone all out to support the 87-year-old monarch, whose his important unifying role is now jeopardized by poor health and the unpopularity of his son, the crown prince.
Commentators who just walked in are raising alarm over the competition to what has been a strong U.S.-Thai alliance since the early days of The Cold War and the conflict in Vietnam. But a longer view, which Davies surely has, is that the Thais have always balanced their act.
During the colonial period – when Siam was, admittedly, a quaint backwater, they played France against Britain to remain the only country in Southeast Asia to maintain independence. Later, with strong personal relations with Woodrow Wilson’s missionary family, its two revolutionaries who had overthrown the absolute monarchy in 1932, gave access to both asides up to and during World War II. One, Regent for the then minor king, Pridi Phamnamwong, was secretly in cahoots with the Americans. His nemesis, Phibun Songkram, was partisan of the European fascists, and headed an all-but Japanese puppet government.
So, Bangkok’s flirtation with Beijing can be seen as the 21st century version of an old game, playing both sides to maintain its independence. But it’s one much more difficult as Thailand has emerged as one of the strongest economies in Southeast Asia. There is new danger, too, in expanded communications – including rail and road access from China and neighboring Laos, new “geography” for a region once bound to heavy Chinese emigration only by sea. There was a time, too, when the Sino-Thai elite emphasized their “native” aspects, harder now when it is profitable in all ways to enhance Chinese ties.
We would suggest it is better for Washington and its representatives to bear that in mind, especially in a period when the U.S. with a “lead from behind” Administration is less skillful at its traditional regional role of supporting local nationalism and freedom of navigation.