Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

"Bamboo Swirling in the Wind": Thailand's Foreign Policy Imbalance between China and the United States

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

"Bamboo Swirling in the Wind": Thailand's Foreign Policy Imbalance between China and the United States

Article excerpt

The rise of China has transformed the political and economic landscape of the Asia-Pacific region. China is undeniably the new Asian powerhouse of the twenty-first century that has propelled the region's economies amid difficulties in other parts of the globe. However, despite the opportunities that China's growth offers, there are concerns over China's increasing influence and behaviour in Northeast and Southeast Asia. Economic dependence on China may constrain autonomous policymaking in smaller countries, especially on policies that impinge on Beijing's national interests. Countries across the region are concerned that China is transforming its economic strength into military might, and that its armed forces have become more assertive in the maritime domain. In the face of a rising China, many Asian countries believe that the United States remains the best guarantor of regional stability. As a result, they have facilitated an increased US military presence as part of the Obama administration's Asian pivot or rebalance. (1) However, regional states cannot be assured about the future, as historical experience is a reminder that given the vagaries of international politics, relying on the protection of an external power is not a long-term solution. (2) The United States may reduce its presence in Asia, as it did after the Vietnam War. Therefore, a general policy practice--especially in Southeast Asia--is to "hedge" against such an outcome. (3) In other words, regional states prefer the flexibility and pragmatism in their interactions with Washington and Beijing by continuing their engagement with China in regional affairs while keeping the United States involved as a counterweight.

Despite the common stance of maintaining a balance between the United States and China, an effective hedging strategy is increasingly delicate and difficult to sustain. Recently, various factors have pushed some countries towards one power and pulled them away from the other. Maritime disputes between China and a number of Asian countries, including Japan in the East China Sea and Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei in the South China Sea, are good examples. Rising tensions in the South China Sea has resulted in Vietnam and the Philippines moving closer to the United States in an effort to deter further Chinese assertiveness. (4)

For Thailand, pursuing a flexible policy towards the Great Powers is not a new diplomatic strategy. The historical legacy of Thailand's interaction with outsiders has shaped a diplomatic culture that values flexibility and pragmatism in its foreign policy. It has been dubbed "bamboo bending with the wind", suggesting a policy that is "always solidly rooted, but flexible enough to bend whichever way the wind blows in order to survive". (5) Guided by the principles of flexibility and pragmatism throughout its modern history, Thailand has managed to mitigate major security threats, including European colonialism in the nineteenth century, the Japanese occupation during the Second World War and the communist expansion in Southeast Asia during the Cold War. However, as with other mainland Southeast Asian states, since the end of the Cold War Thailand has faced difficulties resisting China's influence, and thus on a number of policy issues, Bangkok has gradually tilted towards Beijing. Recent developments in Thai politics and the country's foreign policy cast doubt on whether Thailand is skillful enough to maintain its traditional balancing diplomacy. Most significantly, the military coup in May 2014 has widened the rift between Thailand and the United States, and the junta has moved closer to China. (6)

This article assesses Thai foreign policy and argues that the rise of China has tested the effectiveness of Thailand's flexible diplomacy. Although Thailand generally manages to maintain close ties with both Washington and Beijing, its balancing act is more ad hoc than a well-crafted strategy. …

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