Strained US-Thai ties 'could benefit China'

Strained US-Thai ties 'could benefit China'
Thai soldiers stand guard near a bus stop as people wait for a bus at Victory Monument in Bangkok May 29, 2014.

THE United States' strong condemnation of the military coup in Thailand could drive a wedge between Washington and one of its closest Asian allies, while presenting Beijing with an opportunity to ingratiate itself with Bangkok, say political analysts.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said there was "no justification" for last Thursday's military takeover and warned Thailand that the act would have "negative implications for the US-Thai relationship, especially for our relationship with the Thai military".

Washington has suspended about US$3.5 million (S$4.4 million) in defence aid and halted a military exercise that had been underway, among other things.

The pull-back comes at a particularly sensitive time for the US, which is trying to bolster its "pivot" to Asia, amid growing tensions in the region and an increasingly assertive China.

The coup thus gives China an opportunity yet again to show itself as a friend in Thailand's hour of need, say observers. It would not be the first time. After the 2006 coup that toppled then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the US suspended about US$24 million in aid.

China, which called the coup an internal affair, doubled its military assistance to the new regime, said Dr Ian Storey, senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas). "China saw an opportunity to score points at America's expense," he added. Compared to Washington, Beijing reacted in a much more muted fashion, expressing its concern about the situation and calling for restraint. The Foreign Ministry said that China expects "continuity" in bilateral ties.

Chinese state media and analysts have also been supportive. A commentary by the official Xinhua news agency said China has no cause to worry about bilateral ties while Chinese Academy of Social Sciences international relations expert Zhou Fangye said the US' actions stem from its fear that Thailand might become more stable under the military junta and pursue closer bilateral cooperation with China.

"This will add pressure to the US' China containment strategy," he wrote in the official China Daily on Wednesday.

Mr Ernest Bower, the chair for South-east Asia studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, told Reuters: "China has been investing an incredible amount of energy in Thailand."

In the mid-1980s, Thailand became the first ASEAN member to buy military equipment from China. Under Thaksin's premership, Sino-Thai relations strengthened, with regular strategic dialogues and joint military exercises.

Still, some note that the US has a significant lead. It continues to be a key source of military equipment for Thailand, and both countries hold regular meetings and training exercises, such as the annual Cobra Gold exercise.

Mr Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for South-east Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, does not think the aid cuts and stern rebuke would put too much pressure on the US-Thai ties, which he says are "pretty strong".

Referring to the cuts, he said: "The Thais are pretty pragmatic so I don't think that's necessarily going to doom the relationship." Agreeing, Mr Walter Lohman, director of The Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Centre, said: "The US and China are not interchangeable as security partners."

But Mr Bower warns the US against driving Thailand into China's embrace.

"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," he said.

This article was first published on May 30, 2014.
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