Did Beijing pressure Thailand to refuse entry to a 19-year-old Hong Kong activist? That’s the rumor, as people look for signs that China and Thailand are becoming tighter allies. But Chinese officials insist Bangkok made the call on its own, Reuters reports:
It was the Thai government that made a decision to block the entry to Thailand of a Hong Kong student activist last week, a senior Chinese diplomat said on Monday.
Bespectacled Joshua Wong, 19, who helped organize pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2014, was detained in Bangkok where he had been invited to speak at universities about Hong Kong’s “Umbrella Movement” protests and on setting up his political party.
The case raised fresh questions about mainland interference in Hong Kong, which though part of China is meant to enjoy considerable autonomy under a “one country, two systems” formula, and about Chinese influence on Thailand’s military government.
Beijing’s meddling in Hong Kong’s internal affairs is not a major geopolitical story; the big story is that Thailand seems to be cozying up to China. Ever since the coup in 2014, the United States has been on the outs in Bangkok. As we worried it would be in 2014, this was mostly an own-goal, when the Obama Administration chose to take a human rights-first approach, effectively sidelining Washington in an important Southeast Asian country. The result? China has more and more say in Thai affairs.
Of course, Chinese officials might be telling the truth when they say Bangkok acted on its own. But it’s probably more worrying that Thai officials are seeking to please China of their own volition. If Beijing had applied pressure, that would be one thing. If Thailand thinks it’s advantageous to go out of its way to please Beijing, that also suggests the country’s pivot from the U.S. to China may be more complete than even we realized.