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Is Thailand's Coup an Opening for China?

Thailand’s coup, and the swift international condemnation of it, could represent a major event in Asia’s ongoing geopolitical competition.

The U.S. condemnation was particularly angry. John Kerry said Washington would review its annual aid commitments to Bangkok, which total about $10 million. He also said there was “no justification” for the coup and that the U.S. military would be reconsidering arms sales and joint operations with the Thais.

Is it possible that China would seek to take advantage of this opening? The two countries have no history of conflict. They have no territorial disputes. Many Thais are of ethnic Chinese descent, and indeed, as Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker write in Thaksin, “Thais of Chinese origin had integrated and . . . come to dominate both the economy and politics” of Thailand. For many years, Thailand has served as a bridge between China and the rest of the region. “In other countries of ASEAN,” Phongpaichit and Baker write, “historical memories and ethnic frictions between the Chinese and ‘host’ communities continued to complicate relations with China.” Unlike Thailand.

With the United States poised to distance itself from Thailand, and China on the hunt for loyal friends in Southeast Asia, the opportunity and the motive for strengthening the Bangkok-Beijing relationship are plain to see. Both sides in the Thailand conflict might welcome offers from China. The Shinawatra camp has taken a few body blows recently—Yingluck was found guilty of corruption, deposed, and could end up with a jail sentence like her brother—and the Shinawatras have close ties to China. On the other side, the Thai military could ask China to fill the hole left by a nervous United States. “China has been investing an incredible amount of energy in Thailand,” Ernie Bower of CSIS told Reuters.

As Kerry said, the coup will have “negative implications for the U.S.-Thai relationship, especially for our relationship with the Thai military.” China’s response was more muted. The foreign ministry said it was “concerned” about it and implored both sides to exercise restraint and keep talking. So far, the opinion and editorial sections of China’s state-controlled newspapers have been quiet about the coup in Thailand. It might not remain that way for long.

A situation might arise where the United States “gets” Burma out of China’s grasp, which seems to be happening, albeit slowly, and China “gets” Thailand out of the U.S. orbit. That doesn’t seem to be a fair trade on a geopolitical, economic, or strategic level. Washington should be wary letting Thailand’s army leadership list too far in China’s direction. As Bower put it, “You could lose an alliance and if you don’t lose an alliance, you could in effect lose the primacy of a friendship with one of ASEAN’s anchor countries.”

General Prayuth Chan-ocha, now Thailand’s acting prime minister, is stern, pugnacious, and blunt, according to Agence France Presse; he is “a staunch royalist … known for bluntly stating his opinions” and “wading ruthlessly into the country’s political turmoil.” We’ll have to watch carefully for any statements he makes regarding China, the United States, and shifts in Asia’s political order.

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  • boonteetan

    As the trend goes, Thailand will likely be getting closer to China while Myanmar remains a steady friend of China.
    Meantime, Beijing is busy tackling agitated Manila and Hanoi. It cannot afford to lose more allies in ASEAN.

  • Breif2

    “John Kerry … said there was ‘no justification’ for the coup”

    Really? I don’t particularly like military coups, but again, really? Has he been following the situation in Thailand? I realize that this Administration’s policy, domestic and foreign, seems to be “Hope for the best”, but not all countries have the luxury being able to indulge such fecklessness.

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