Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Thailand 2014 : The Year of Living Dangerously.

The vocal condemnation of the Thai army coup by the West could be a diplomatic mistake as might the US decision to suspend about one third of the aid provided to Thailand. None of it can affect events in Thailand nor determine the outcome of the power struggle for control after King Bhumibol Adulyadej dies.

The willingness of Washington to make a principled stand against a military coup reflects the fact that since 2011, the year of Yingluck Shinawatra's election, the Obama administration has pursued its Pivot To Asia strategy in which Thailand is considered a key regional partner in the quest to contain China.

General Prayuth, the head of the army and leading figure in the 2006 coup, is part of Thailand's 'monarchy-military nexus' which has felt pushed out of influence with the rise of Thaksin's party as it keeps winning elections and has been tacitly supported by the US since 2011

The reason for that is the authoritarian government of Abhisit Vejjajiva, the PM from 2008 to 2011, one backed on the streets by the Yellow Shirts, had not proved as pro-US as Washington had hoped after the 2006 coup and raised the prospect of Thailand turning closer to China as a regional partner.

With the dispute between Vietnam and China over the oil and fish of the South China Sea reaching crisis point, Beijing could be posed to exploit the growing rift between the US and the interim coup government to step in to offer arms deals and military aid to the beleaguered monarchy-military nexus.

An authoritarian government in Bangkok dominated by former members of the Democrat Party would be far more congenial to China which has been attempting to cultivate its 'soft power' ties with Bangkok's Sino-Thai business and political elite as a means of rivalling the US for influence.

China has no interest in watching Thailand become closer to Cambodia and Myanmar as part of a coalition of states hostile to China's claims to dominate the South China Sea within the nine dash line just as Thailand and Cambodia have no oil interests at stake in these maritime waters.

By contrast with Washington, Beijing has been mute in response to the coup. Being far more pragmatic, diplomats in Beijing realise that the Thai elites, whether supporters of Thaksin's party or the opposition, would not take kindly to lectures or direct meddling from the West.

The dilemma for Washington now is if tried using punitive sanctions stronger than those after 2006 it could end up pushing whichever faction wrests control after the 2014 coup closer towards Beijing and, in effect, lose a military alliance it has had since the height of the Cold War in the 1950s.

As Ernie Bower of the Center for Strategic and International Studies made plain, “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". Having Myanmar is the US orbit would hardly be compensation.

2014 is going to be a year of living dangerously. Thailand is the second-largest economy in Southeast Asia. But the impact of higher fuel and food prices in an oil import dependent economy is widening social divisions and creating political polarisation between the old elites and the rural masses and urban wage earners.

With the US and China vying for influence, it could be that an authoritarian regime emerging from out of the military coup would be backed by either Great Power, more likely China, and that this, and the reactionary stance of the Sino-Thai elites backing the Yellow Shirts,  could add ethnic enmities to class resentments.

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