Prayut learns realities of dealing with major powers

Prayut learns realities of dealing with major powers
Prime Minister Prayut should have realised from the beginning that reforms would require a long process and inclusive participation.
PHOTO: Reuters

Now Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha understands that the coup in which he seized power from an elected government last May comes with a price.

The military government faces pressure from East and West to restore democracy to the Kingdom quickly.

Washington has continually urged the junta to return power to the people through a democratic system. US officials at all levels, from the president to the charge d'affaires at the embassy to Bangkok, have consistently called for the restoration of democracy. Relations with the United States and military cooperation would not return to normal until Thailand is once again governed by an elected civilian government.

Cobra Gold, the annual military war games, was scaled down this year as the US sent fewer troops to join the drill and the theme was refocused on humanitarian assistance and disaster response capabilities.

The junta wanted the war games to be a purely military exercise but the US has linked it with political development in Thailand. Many things could remain the same, as Patrick Murphy, charge d'affaires at the US Embassy in Bangkok said at the opening of Cobra Gold on Monday, but "still, we can't deny that this period is a challenging one for us all, and has necessitated a modified Cobra Gold exercise this year as Thailand manages its return to elected, civilian-led government."

Thai leaders anticipated the Americans would say this for a while and then phase it out when Thailand offered strategic interest to Washington, or leaned on other major powers in the region.

Initially, the junta expected that one US major ally in the Far Eastern region, Japan, would be more relaxed towards the military government by turning a blind eye on the military coup and focusing only on economic cooperation for mutual benefit.

Of course, Japan's main interest in relations with Thailand is on economic matters, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cares also about political and security matters as Tokyo under his leadership seeks a more political role in the international arena.

During his three-day visit to Japan, coup leader Prayut worked to explain Thailand's domestic political situation; and furthermore, he was forced to show a strong commitment to an early restoration of democracy.

The next election, something Prayut is reluctant to speak on at home, needed to be mentioned during several meetings with Japanese officials, including Abe. The poll could be held by the end of this year or early next year.

Prayut's visit to Japan is likely to be fruitful since officials in Tokyo know how to play along.

Prayut received two documents signed on railway development and promoting of business in Thailand, although the paper simply showed just "intention", not action. The junta wanted Japan to help develop a rail route, high speed if possible, to link Bangkok with western, northern and eastern provinces. It also wanted to fulfil connectivity along the East West Economic Corridor and the pouring of money into the Dawei project in Myanmar.

Prayut received a commitment, in the Japanese style of diplomacy. Tokyo said yes, these projects are very important - but let's study and look at their prospects for the long run. That simply means projects would not materialise during Prayut's time.

China is the only single comfortable nation Prayut can deal with. Unlike the Americans and the Japanese, Chinese leaders refrained from comments on Thai politics. China has a very clear agenda to have countries in Southeast Asia as its main supporters - to counter-balance Japan and US pivot policy. China's new strategy to create a Maritime Silk Road in the 21st century is compatible to ASEAN and Thailand's connectivity plans.

However, the junta leader should know there are no more "free lunches" in international relations. Prayut's rail project, signed in a Memorandum of Understanding with China in December, needed to go through a real Chinese style business arrangement.

Beijing shocked the Thais in the first round of negotiations with a proposal that Thailand borrow capital at a high interest rate between 2-4 per cent annually, from the Chinese Import-Export Bank, while China would build and operate the project.

Negotiation with China is tough. If Prayut wants something to demonstrate the value of his coup, perhaps he needs to pay what, to him, would be the most expensive price.

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