Thai junta deftly rebalances its US-China relations

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Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha waves upon his arrival to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Clark, northern Philippines November 12, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

Thailand’s coup-installed Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwon will be in Washington from April 22-27 to meet Defense Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis, the latest US boost to the nation’s ruling junta despite rising demands for elections, human rights and democracy.

In the days before Prawit’s US visit, Chinese billionaire Jack Ma will hobnob with junta leader, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, underlining Thailand’s delicate diplomatic balancing act between the great powers.

“The US needs to counter China’s increasing rise in interests and influence in Thailand, and in Southeast Asia by extension, and deepening already deep military-to-military relations is one way to do that,” Benjamin Zawacki, author of a new book on Thailand’s geopolitical relations, said in an interview, describing Prawit’s visit.

“Thailand’s government is — as all Thai governments have been since the turn of the century — pro-Beijing. And until Trump came to power, it was anti-Washington as well,” said the Bangkok-based Zawacki.

Thailand publicly says it wants good relations with all nations, and is not leaning toward China to the detriment of America.

Prawit’s meeting with Mattis and other Pentagon officials “affirms both sides’ commitment to the longstanding [non-NATO] alliance, and our shared interest in advancing prosperity and security in the Asia-Pacific region,” a US Embassy spokesperson said.

They will discuss ways “to strengthen our alliance and advance regional security,” the embassy said.

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha (R) and Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan before a weekly cabinet meeting at Government House in Bangkok, January 4, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha (R) and Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan at Government House, Bangkok, January 4, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

Mattis led a US delegation to Bangkok in October as President Trump’s special envoy to attend the royal cremation of deceased King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

After Trump became president, the US State Department and its diplomats muted their earlier strong criticism of Thailand’s 2014 coup and current military government, which had caused rifts between the two countries.

In contrast, the Pentagon has stepped up its relations with Thailand’s politically powerful US-trained army. “In 2017 alone, US$261 million worth of military deals are in the works,” US Ambassador to Thailand Glyn Davies said in July.

The Pentagon’s support for the military regime “further legitimates this government’s hold on power and approach to governance,” Zawacki said.

The US also increasingly depends on Thailand to shrink North Korea’s regional financial and diplomatic support. In 1950, Thailand was the first Asian nation to send troops under the United Nations to support the US-led Korean War.

Among Thailand’s more than 6,300 soldiers in Korea, more than 1,100 were reportedly injured and 136 killed.

During the 1960s and early 70s, Thailand’s territory was extensively used for US airbases and other facilities when America waged its failed wars against Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

US Marine Lt. General David Berger (R) and Chief of the Royal Thai armed forces General Surapong Suwana-Adth (C) pose for a photograph at the end of a live fire military display in Nakhon Ratchasima in northeastern Thailand on February 24, 2017, the last day of the 10-day multi-national Cobra Gold military exercise. Photo: AFP/ Roberto Schmidt

US and Thai soldiers during the 2017 Cobra Gold joint military exercise. Photo: AFP/ Roberto Schmidt

More recently, the US sent more than 6,000 troops to its 37th annual multinational Cobra Gold military exercise in Thailand in February.

Prawit’s visit is controversial for its timing. The former army commander is currently under investigation by the National Anti-Corruption Commission for failing to declare 22 luxury wristwatches provisionally valued at more than US$1 million in his possession.

Prawit, who is also an influential deputy prime minister and the junta’s second-ranking official, has insisted that the watches are not evidence of corruption because they were loaned to him by a now-dead wealthy friend.

Thousands of Thais have signed several online petitions demanding Prawit resign over the wristwatch scandal. “If the people do not want me, I will leave,” Mr. Prawit said in February, but he has not stepped down.

Thai media, anti-junta activists and others suspect the investigation will not result in any punishment because Prawit enjoys strong support from Prime Minister Prayut, who seized power in a bloodless coup.

Prayut met Trump during an official visit to the White House in October and said at their dinner, “I am happier than at any time in the past, as I feel that I have found my true friend.”

When US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford visited Bangkok in February, the two men discussed elections.

US President Donald Trump and Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha take part in a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House on October 2, 2017 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / Mandel NGAN

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha and US President Donald Trump at the Oval Office of the White House on October 2, 2017. Photo: AFP/Mandel Ngan

Prayut said at the time: “I told him, the US president [Trump] has his ‘America First.’ I also have a ‘Thailand First’ as an approach to take care of the country’s interests.”

The election’s “timing will be determined by me and legal procedures,” Prayut, a former army chief, said he told Dunford.

Projecting an increased confidence, Prayut is also reaching out to wealthy foreign investors, including China’s multi-billionaire Jack Ma who heads the e-commerce Alibaba company.

Ma, who met Prayut in Thailand in October, returns to Bangkok on Thursday (April 19) to talk money and technology, including plans to upgrade the local Customs Department and Thailand Tourism Authority, as well as US$355 million worth of investments in the junta’s flagship Eastern Economic Corridor development project.

Some see Prayut as increasingly deft in his ability to balance his welcome to Americans, Chinese and other foreign rivals, though others sense he is leveraging international ties to fortify his junta’s vulnerable position as it fends off rising demands for a return to democracy.

Unlike the US, China has not pressured Thailand’s military rulers to restore democracy or improve human rights.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (L) shakes hands with Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-O-Cha (R) at Government House in Bangkok, Thailand July 24, 2017. REUTERS/Lillian Suwanrumpha/Pool

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (L) shakes hands with Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha (R) at Government House, Bangkok, July 24, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Lillian Suwanrumpha/Pool

Prayut is under local fire for repeatedly postponing nationwide elections which, even if held, would limit politicians to a future 750-member parliament that would include a 250-seat Senate with extraordinary powers appointed by the junta.

His government orchestrated a new constitution passed in a tightly controlled national referendum which allows a hung parliament to appoint an unelected prime minister, prompting widespread suspicions that he aims to extend his rule.

At the same time, his junta is cracking down on a small uptick in anti-junta protests – moves that would have previously elicited stronger US criticism.

After a handful of Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University students raised a banner labeling him “the dictator” during his recent on-campus appearance, the military went to their homes and questioned their parents about their children.

The regime did not intimidate the parents, according to government spokesman Lieutenant General Sansern Kaewkamnerd. “It was a normal job. They did not carry weapons or drive a tank to their homes,” Sansern said.

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