Bending with the Wind: The Continuity and Flexibility of Thai Foreign Policy

Article excerpt

AN ANCIENT SIAMESE PROVERB likens foreign policy to the 'bamboo in the wind'; always solidly rooted, but flexible enough to bend whichever way the wind blows in order to survive.(1) More than mere pragmatism, this adage reflects a long-cherished, philosophical approach to international relations, the precepts of which are very much enshrined in Thai culture and religion. Throughout its long and frequently violent history, Thailand - or Siam, as it was known until 1939 - has consistently crafted a cautious, calculated foreign policy and jealously guarded its independence. Indeed, it has occasionally gone to extraordinary lengths to preserve it. Despite its controversial alliance with Japan during World War II, and its support of the United States in the Vietnam War, Thailand has carefully avoided anything more than temporary arrangements with foreign powers. At a regional level, the Thais have exercised a foreign policy blend of prudence, pragmatism, and cynical opportunism. Surrounded by historical enemies, and central in an area of the world long plagued by revolution and war, Thailand has nonetheless emerged in the 21st century as a considerable regional power. Notwithstanding its current economic plight and the on-going demands of political reform, Thailand remains a pivotal player in Southeast Asia.

Geography has always played a primary role in Thai foreign relations. Thailand lies in the heart of mainland Southeast Asia, extending like an elephant's trunk south between the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand into peninsular Malaysia. Myanmar, or Burma, shares Thailand's western and part of its northeastern boundaries, while Laos shares its longest border to the north and east. To the southeast is Cambodia. The population of Thailand in 2000 was approximately 62 million, making it the fourth most populous nation (behind Indonesia, Vietnam, and Philippines) in Southeast Asia and second on the mainland. Its economy is one of the most diverse in the region. It is the world's largest exporter of rice and natural rubber, and other agricultural products make up a large share of its economy. Fishing has always been a staple, as was forestry until the late 1980s. Over the past twenty years tourism has become a major facet of the Thai economy. In recent years Thailand has also developed its industrial and manufacturing sector, particularly with respect to automotives, petrochemicals, electronics, mining, and oil.(2) Its tremendous economic growth during the 1980s and early 1990s made Thailand one of the 'little dragons' of Asia. However, during that period its insatiable appetite for natural resources put considerable strain on Thailand's already tense relations with its neighbours. The Thai economy has adapted considerably since the 1997 crash, which, in turn, has necessitated a practical assessment of its foreign policy objectives.

True to the bamboo analogy, Thailand's foreign relations have always demonstrated great flexibility and pragmatism. Several early kingdoms were extremely proficient in using diplomacy to help unite the Thai people and overcome their larger Khmer and Pagan neighbours.(3) With the arrival of European powers in Southeast Asia the need for a shrewd foreign policy was even greater. The Ayutthaya Empire, the predominant Thai kingdom from roughly the middle of the 14th century until its collapse in 1767, pursued intricate policies on trade, political, and military relations with a number of foreign powers. Its successor, the Thonburi or Bangkok empire, significantly expanded its power in the region by maintaining the emphasis on diplomacy. In fact, the Chakri dynasty that founded the empire (and from which the current Thai royal family is descended) consolidated most of the Thai kingdoms and gave rise to the modern Siamese state.(4) Moreover, despite numerous difficulties with European rivals for control of the region, Siam emerged in the 20th century as the only country in Southeast Asia never to have been colonized, undoubtedly in large part because of its ability to play off European adversaries through skilful diplomacy. …