Tipping the Balance in Southeast Asia?

Thailand, the United States and China

John Blaxland and Greg Raymond’s study breaks new ground in our understanding of Thai strategic and military culture and how Thai security elites view the United States, China, and the shifting geopolitical landscape in Asia. This analysis provides a roadmap to scholars seeking to understand shifting Thai policies and for policymakers seeking to maintain a strong footing for the U.S.-Thailand alliance during a time of strategic flux.

For centuries Thailand has been a master in the pursuit of strategic independence and balancing relations with great powers to avoid foreign domination. This tradition remains a powerful influence in Thai strategic culture, and it is thus perhaps unsurprising that Thai leaders have sought closer military and strategic ties with China. And yet at the same time, this preference for a balanced and independent foreign policy means that Thailand will not rush headlong into an embrace of China as a primary security partner. Rather, Thai security elites will seek to maintain the advantages brought by having a close security relationship with the United States.

A particularly valuable contribution of this Centre of Gravity study is what it reveals about the strategic advantages the United States continues to enjoy as a security partner to Thailand. The long, close relationship between the two militaries has created a large reserve of assets, relationships and positive experiences which are not easily replaced. These advantages include English language proficiency, adoption of U.S. military doctrine, and the volume and sophistication of joint military-to-military training and exercises.
This report is well timed, given the ongoing reassessment in Washington about the U.S.-Thailand alliance in the wake of the 2014 military coup. Unlike the previous coup in 2006, the 2014 coup was accompanied by harsh restrictions on civil liberties including freedom of speech and assembly, and it quickly became clear that a return to civilian rule and elections would be slow, and perhaps not fully democratic. This led the Obama administration to take a harder line on Thailand’s military government than had been taken in response previous coups, including more vocal public criticism of the state of democracy and human rights in Thailand. Thai leaders deeply resented this treatment and relations began to cool considerably, with some noticeable effects on the alliance.

Efforts were underway at the end of the Obama administration to recalibrate its approach towards Thailand and reengage in some key areas, and these efforts towards normalizing relations have accelerated considerably under the Trump administration as it seeks to “revitalize” the U.S.-Thailand alliance. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha met with President Trump at the White House in early October 2017, and was treated warmly as long-time friend and strategically important ally.

The United States has a strong interest in seeing Thailand return to a full-fledged stable democracy, and it also has a strong interest in the region resuming a more a positive trajectory towards democracy, human rights and good governance. The United States needs to be both principled and pragmatic in balancing these interests. The analysis and policy recommendations offered here by John Blaxland and Gregory Raymond will be indispensable for those seeking to find the right balance through skillful statecraft.

Foreword by Dr. Amy Searight.

This is a copublication of Strategic & Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University and CSIS.

John Blaxland

Head, Strategic & Defense Studies Centre, Australian National University

Greg Raymond

Research Fellow, Strategic & Defense Studies Centre, Australian National University

Amy Searight (Foreword)

Senior Adviser and Director, Southeast Asia Program, CSIS