Thailand in the age of deglobalization and great power competition

“We are living in a world that is not an extension of the past,” a Japanese policy statement recently declared. “The novel coronavirus infection,” it observes, “has transformed the world,” while “Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has shaken the very foundations of the international order.” 

This is a common theme from Japan’s policymakers. Its prime minister, Kishida Fumio, who often warns that “Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow,” recently touted Japan’s stability and reliability “in an era of geopolitical uncertainty with supply chain disruptions and drastic shifts in energy and other resources.” A ruling party heavyweight, Kono Taro, has stated that “Deglobalization is already happening…We will pay higher prices, but that’s the price we have to pay to keep our security.” 

The acceleration of deglobalization, the decoupling of the authoritarian and democratic worlds, the end of the era of low prices: we are, indeed, living in a world that is not an extension of the past. To predict in 2019 that in by 2022, the world would look remarkably different — millions dead from a global pandemic, China’s borders sealed tight from the outside world, the biggest European war in a generation — would likely elicit an examination of mental acuity. 

But such is reality. Thailand, regardless of what it does, cannot escape the consequences of our deglobalizing world. As US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen emphasizes the need for “friendshoring” to “trusted countries,” while still-bewildered global elites at Davos discussed “re-shoring,” “self-sufficiency” and “resilience,” an export-oriented country like Thailand cannot help but wonder about the possible ramifications. 

The question, now, is this: can Thailand adjust to this uncertain new world? The modus operandi of Thailand’s foreign policy is often described as that of a “bamboo bending in the wind.” The problem today, however, is that it has become harder to read the direction of the wind. In a world of intensifying great power competition, are Thailand’s policymakers skillful enough to play both sides? And if that is no longer viable, which side will Thailand pick? 

After the 2014 military coup, Thailand has commonly been seen to have leaned closer to China than to the United States. In recent times, however, that picture has become considerably murkier. While a piece in Foreign Policy noted that “Washington is worried that China is winning Thailand over,” another piece in the Asia Times detailed how “Thai-China relations are in quiet but certain decline while US reaffirms its strategic and economic commitment to the kingdom.” The fact that both pieces hold some truth means Thailand either possesses a strategically advantageous ambiguity, or is mired in a strategic muddle. It reveals, at minimum, that Thailand is gripped by competing tensions. 

Thailand has undeniably been embarked on a course correction to the West after leaning too heavily towards China. In recent months, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has attended the US-ASEAN Summit in Washington and became an initial partner in President Joe Biden’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. He met with Kishida twice in the span of a single month, unveiling a new defense deal. 

At the same time, Thailand’s relations with China remains troubled by an unsettled submarine deal and a delayed railway project that has frustrated Beijing’s Belt and Road ambitions. China’s pursuit of its dynamic zero-Covid strategy and the isolation of the Russian economy means that two of Thailand’s largest tourist markets are, for now, lost, further loosening Thailand’s economic dependence on this bloc of countries.

Meanwhile, however, Thailand’s elites have become perceptibly more hostile to the West, an attitude shift accelerated after Western responses to the 2014 military coup. Take responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

Influential figures like Dr. Rienthong Naenna immediately declared their support for Vladimir Putin, while Dr. Trairong Suwankiri, a former deputy prime minister, accused the Ukrainians of genocide in the Donbass. M.R. Chulcherm Yugala warned that Thailand’s involvement in America’s Indo-Pacific initiatives would lead to the country becoming a “second Ukraine.” Conservative Facebook pages relentlessly pushed out posts mocking Biden and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. These figures, although not in power, reflect at least to some extent the general establishment sentiment. 

These inherent tensions between the need for strategic re-orientation and elite attitudes will continue to shape Thailand’s calculations. 

It is true that both great powers have not been entirely strategic in its approach to ASEAN. The US insistence on framing the Russian-Ukraine conflict as a war between autocracy and democracy, as Singaporean prime minister Lee Hsien Loong observed, makes it far harder for many countries to take a side, whereas painting the struggle merely as a battle for sovereignty would be a far easier sell. China, on the other hand, has been perceived as too transactional; few leaders will have forgotten Yang Jiechi’s thundering to ASEAN that “China is a big country and you are small countries, and that is a fact.” 

Above all, a country like Thailand only wishes that great powers can exist amicably, that the Pacific Ocean is truly, as Xi Jinping once put it, big enough to accommodate both the US and China. But one has no choice but to see the world as it is, not as we want it to be. What is Thailand to do in this era of great power competition and deglobalization?

 For one, Thailand must recognize — as this government surely does — that its guiding maxim as a bamboo shifting in the wind comes out of necessity: Thailand would be poorer off without both the US and China. 

The US was a key partner in Thailand’s economic development and a security guarantor during the Cold War. Today it continues to be the fundamental offshore balancer that maintains regional order in the Indo-Pacific, while its soft power retains its strength. 

China’s largely amicable relationship with Thailand, however, also provides the historical memory that fuels continued friendship between the two countries. Even as economic ties have weakened somewhat as a result of the pandemic, China remains Thailand’s most important trading partner. 

Dr. Arm Tungnirun argues that “The solution in the world after COVID-19 is not to stop trading and rely on the domestic economy, nor is it to choose a camp. It is to find a new strategy for how Thailand can become a part of both supply chains.” But how? As great powers begin “friendshoring,” where does Thailand stand? Has it espoused a clear enough set of values that would make it a reliable partner to both the US and China? Indeed, if we are to believe that this is not a mutually exclusive proposition, how does Thailand brand itself in a way that both can trust? 

At the same time, Thailand needs to make itself more resilient to the shocks that may come as a consequence of deglobalization. Thais have long been warned about the need for resilience through the dissemination of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s Sufficiency Economic Theory. But Thailand remains in the external dependency trap: reliant on export-led growth and tourism. This economic model has been brutally exposed as fragile by both the pandemic and war. Yet the Prayut government’s push to transform Thailand into a knowledge economy fueled by innovation has yet to bear fruit. 

Restructuring Thailand’s economy, increasing Thailand’s innovative capacity, and improving our education system: these are no longer just economic concerns but matters of national security. 

Of course, we must also be careful not to overstate these global trends. As former permanent secretary of the Singaporean foreign ministry Bilahari Kausikan has said, where “the US and the Soviet Union led two different systems which were connected only at their margins,” the improbability of a complete bifurcation of the US and Chinese economies means that “the US and China will continue to compete within this single global system.” This, he argues, is “fundamentally different from competition between systems.”

But just because this is not a new Cold War is not an excuse to avoid thinking about the challenges Thailand faces in a present that, we must remind ourselves, represents a rupture with rather than an extension of the past. 

Above all, Thailand needs a strategy. When other nations are warning of the need to adapt to a new world, when powerful figures across the globe begin dancing to a different tune, Thailand would do very well to pay careful attention.

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