US Relations with Thailand
The One That’s Getting Away?

Since Thailand’s May 2014 coup installed a military government led by Prayuth Chan-ocha, we’ve been watching the strategically significant Southeast Asian nation for signs that it will move closer to countries with illiberal political systems, most importantly China. Here’s one such sign: Defense News reports that Bangkok has purchased three submarines from China. The story puts the purchase in the context of the U.S.-Thai relationship:

The sub decision will worsen the drift in Thai-US relations and frustrate the US’ rebalance strategy, said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

“It is building into a kind of brinkmanship from Bangkok which will require the US to weigh its values and interests carefully,” he said

US criticism might be the prime driver for the turn toward China, Pongsudhirak said.

“Evidently, Thailand’s military government has found superpower support in Beijing, as China has embraced Thai generals in both coups in 2006 and 2014,” he said. “Having China on its side is hugely important to the Thai military because it confers ‘face’ and international legitimacy while Western countries generally shunned and downgraded dealings with Thailand.”

As any Via Meadia reader will know, we’re no fans of authoritarian political systems. Even when we have legitimate grounds for disapproving of a government, however, making a policy of giving it the cold shoulder doesn’t actually serve our interests or those of the dictators’ subjects. The American tendency to moralize and to hamper our diplomatic relationships with countries whose governments we repudiate (even if doing so doesn’t improve the situation) can, in fact, become a strategic liability.

Since the coup in Thailand, it looks to us like Washington’s policy—imposing sanctions, backing away from this year’s Cobra Gold joint exercises held in Thai territory— has helped no one. On the contrary, Washington, well-intentioned though it is, has actually diminished the prospects for an open Thai society. The U.S. stance is pushing the junta towards China, and the closer Thailand gets with China, the less likely the junta is to loosen its iron fist. Chan-ocha, for his part, doesn’t seem to be one stern lecture from Washington away from instituting the Bill of Rights for his citizens.

Top U.S. officials, from presidents to SecDefs and on down have vaunted the pivot to Asia as the most important U.S. foreign policy interest of our era. Here’s hoping that they listen to themselves and stop scoring own goals by alienating the government of an ally. Engaging with Thailand, not isolating and hectoring it, is actually more likely to make the world a safer and freer place.

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