5 July 2023
THE VIEW FROM THAILAND
Amid the intense rivalry between the United States and China in the Indo-Pacific, taking sides appears to be the new normal. Yet as middle powers and US allies, Thailand and Australia are resisting this new normal. Both have new governments which are seeking – where possible – to avoid choosing sides.
Thailand is now at a turning point following the victory of Pita Limjaroenrat at the May national election. Pita, the forty-two-year-old liberal leader of the Move Forward Party, pledges to bring Thailand out of what he refers to as a “lost decade” under a military regime. Though it is still challenging for him to become the next prime minister given the constitutional constraints and conservative contestation, his electoral victory brings hope and high expectations within Thailand.
If successful, Pita’s approach to foreign policy will be a sea change as he debunks so-called “bamboo diplomacy” – an approach involving merely reacting and adapting to the regional transformation underway. For him, such an approach lacks principle. Rather, Pita will pursue a rules-based foreign policy in which liberal principles will be upheld and the Thai–US alliance is likely to be strengthened.
On China, Pita pithily calls for an “a la carte” diplomacy, instead of a wholesale “buffet”. Unlike current prime minister and former coup leader Prayut Chan-o-cha, who closely aligned with Beijing, Pita will approach China on a case-by-case basis. Also, in contrast with Prayut, Pita would take a tougher stance on Russia’s war against Ukraine, and authoritarian regimes, most notably Myanmar. To manage the toxic Sino–US competition, Thailand will reposition itself as a more principled and independent player in a rules-based, multilateral world.
Pita’s foreign policy direction could lead to greater overlap between the approaches of Thailand and Australia to the current regional tensions. Bangkok and Canberra already have a partnership based on solid foundations – they have been strategic partners since 2020 and free trade partners since 2005. The Albanese government prioritises security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, closer engagement with the ten-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and promotion of climate policy and clean energy. These agendas are positively welcomed in Bangkok.
Referring to Australia as a “middle-size country” during her visit to Bangkok in November 2022, the Australian foreign minister, Penny Wong, endorsed deeper engagement with South-East Asia. According to Wong, Australia is committed to “ASEAN centrality and ASEAN-led institutions, and we want to work together with all of our ASEAN partners to shape this period of change together.” By doing so, she de-emphasised the idea of South-East Asia as a “theatre of great-power competition” and promoted a “strategic equilibrium” in the region.
Albanese’s approach to the PRC is labelled as a “reset” aimed at resuming economic ties with its largest trading partner and ending tariffs on Australian exports. However, Australia continues its military posture with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and AUKUS alliance. The image of Canberra as America’s “deputy sheriff” remains intact and perhaps sends mixed signals. In this sense, it is still unclear whether China is a friend or foe for the Albanese government.
Nonetheless, Penny Wong reiterated a change in foreign policy towards the PRC, which is to “cooperate where we can” and “disagree where we must”.
Pita’s leadership is likely to be consistent with much of Australia’s agenda in the region. Thailand and Australia will cooperate more on promoting a liberal rules-based international system, multilateral diplomacy and a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific. Yet, Canberra was disappointed with the recent cancellation of the Quad meeting in Sydney after President Joe Biden pulled out. Perhaps this uncertain commitment by the US renders it necessary for regional players to diversify their alignments.
A more nuanced approach towards China and climate change will be another area in which Pita and Albanese may share mutual ideas. Though it is still too early to know the details behind Pita’s a la carte diplomacy, it is likely that he will seek Thailand–China cooperation where possible.
However, there are ongoing concerns in Thailand with regards to Australia’s long-term economic presence in ASEAN as well as its acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines, which might instigate an arms race in the region. ASEAN and Thailand do not wish to see the zero-sum game of great-power politics in the Indo-Pacific region.
If the elected government is set up in the next few months, Thailand is about to change. Yet, it is too early to anticipate the extent to which the new government’s foreign policy will be a change in style or in substance. Either way, it is crucial for Thailand and Australia to cooperate as both face the same balancing acts amid the emerging bipolar international order.
Jittipat Poonkham is associate professor of international relations at Thammasat University. He is the author of A Genealogy of Bamboo Diplomacy: The Politics of Thai Détente with Russia and China.