America's 'absence' a blessing in disguise for Thailand: The Nation Columnist

The Royal Thai Navy helicopter EC645 T2 participating in the amphibious assault joint military exercise component of Cobra Gold 2017 at a military base in Chonburi province, Thailand, on Feb 17, 2017.
The Royal Thai Navy helicopter EC645 T2 participating in the amphibious assault joint military exercise component of Cobra Gold 2017 at a military base in Chonburi province, Thailand, on Feb 17, 2017.PHOTO: EPA

BANGKOK (THE NATION/ ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Thailand will soon announce officially the purchase of three Yuan Class S26T Chinese-made submarines worth 13.5 billion baht (S$547 million) each after a year of negotiations and study. The procurement of such a mammoth amount of military hardware has both symbolic and strategic significance.

The Thai Navy's long delayed decision could mean the United States-Thai alliance no longer occupies the same stature in the overall scheme of security priorities in Thailand.

The new Thai-China strategic alliance is gaining strength by the day - a virtual alliance in the making. It has become a new barometer showing the Thai security apparatus' preference towards China for broader security surveillance and protection, especially to address the force imbalance in the Andaman Sea and Gulf of Thailand.

Thailand wants to boost protection of its vast maritime resources on both sides of the Indian and Pacific Oceans and to secure the sea-lanes of communication. In addition, the alliance would also serve as a deterrent as maritime security becomes the main focus. If need be, it could perform the so-called "denial accessibility" of the hostile elements.

Indeed, it was a bit redundant for the Pacific Command Chief, Admiral Harry Harris, to praise the Thai-US alliance in his opening speech last week to kick off the 36th Cobra Gold in Chon Buri. He claimed that the US did not treat its alliance with Thailand lightly, as "we are in it together, for the long haul". But in reality, it was the opposite, the longstanding ties had become hollow due to negligence, unable to yield the dividends befitting the region's oldest friend.

At this juncture, no other country except China can provide such affordable and extensive maritime security coverage and at the same time be willing to meet all Thai pre-sale demands as much as possible within its economic constraints. The US, which has the capacity to provide assistance similar to China, has never paid sufficient attention - let alone provide a policy response - to Thailand's faltering 184-year relationship and its perceived external vulnerability.

Like other top American officials before him, Harris reiterated and praised the importance of the Thai-US alliance and wished that a democratic Thailand would return to its pre-eminent position on both the regional and global stage. "We need Thailand's leadership in Asia," Harris emphasised. But there is a twist here - Thailand does not have a democratic government. Ironically, the current Thai military leaders attempt to prove to the world, in particular to US policymakers, that they are not dictators; that they are more democratic than over 60 per cent of all United Nations members.

The lingering question is whether today's Thailand, which has been trying hard to cope with myriad economic and political challenges and reforms, is worthy of US strategic priorities. If it is, it means Washington has failed to communicate effectively with the current Thai leaders. The prevailing strong impression in Washington, that the current military juggernaut plans to continue holding on power as long as possible has done much to undermine the progress of Thai-US relations. After 32 months in power, Thailand has moved on - although some would say just muddled through.

In fact, the US has been slow in responding to Thailand's desire for further defence modernisation over the past decades, despite the new strategic landscape. From the Thai perspective, the US rebalancing policy was primarily a self-serving one aimed at maintaining Washington's foothold in the region.

During the past decade, which coincided with political turbulence inside Thailand, the Thai armed forces struggled to beef up their defence only with limited success with new procurement from non-US manufacturers. Neighbouring countries, however, have all modernised their armed forces.

The current Thai regime mistakenly thought that the new Trump administration would be able to quickly put in place a new comprehensive policy towards the US alliance and address key issues. At the moment, Thailand, which is ranked as the US's 15th trading partner and enjoys a trade surplus, is shaping its new US approach. Last Friday, former US National Security Council adviser General Michael Flynn had a phone conversation with his Thai counterpart, Thawip Netniyom, and pledged fervently to strengthen the US-Thai alliance and security cooperation.

Both sides also discussed the planned telephone link-up between Trump and Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha in days and weeks to come. Unfortunately, Flynn resigned from his position the next day due to a scandal over his links to Russia. As a result, the latest outcome of the Flynn-Thawip phone discussion has yet to be delivered to the US State Department. That explained why Harris' speech and his meetings and discussions with the Thai leaders did not reflect the fresh US pledges made by Flynn. Now the plan to have the Trump-Prayut phone conversation has been delayed amid new developments in Washington.

As Thailand and China bolster their defence cooperation, Japan is not far behind. Tokyo is eager to further consolidate their economic-oriented excellent relationship with more strategic frameworks. One is the planned memorandum of understanding to secure a defence equipment transfer from Japan to Thailand, now a top priority for both sides to complete as soon as possible. It must be noted here that Thai officials are not shy, and do not feel intimidated when they discuss and engage with their Japanese counterparts.

Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko are scheduled to visit Thailand during the first week of March to pay respects to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej who died in October last year. They will be the first monarchs to visit Thailand under the new King, His Majesty Maha Vajiralongkorn or Rama X. The traditional ties between the two monarchies must not be underestimated. They have served as a rock-solid foundation for the healthy and holistic evolution of bilateral relations.

It is now obvious that China and Japan will be two key strategic partners for Thailand's security needs in coming decades. This will impact directly on the emerging regional security architecture currently under debate. Bangkok's biggest challenge is to make sure that overall security ties are aimed at strengthening bilateral relations - China-Thai as well as Japan-Thai, and not against each other.

As far as Thailand is concerned, the current 'absence' of the US, which was previously a constant balancing force for stability in the region, is a blessing in disguise. It enables Thailand to adopt multi-pronged strategic ties with major powers, breaking the exclusivity of the US-dominated security entrapment.