China's Influence to Grow in Thailand?

The foreign policy under the newly elected Thai government may see Beijing solidify ties.
By Parameswaran Ponnudurai
2011-07-10
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yingluck305 Thailand's next leader Yingluck Shinawatra at the Puea Thai Party headquarters in Bangkok on July 8, 2011.
AFP PHOTO/Nicolas Asfouri

Thailand is expected to play a bigger regional role under its newly elected government, with China possibly wielding greater influence on the traditional U.S. ally, experts say.

Incoming prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra has not elaborated on her coalition government's foreign policy agenda following her Pheu Thai Party's decisive victory in last weekend's election.

However, her pre-election policy vision mirrored that implemented during the premiership of her exiled brother Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by the military in 2006 after five years in power.

It indicates an outward-oriented policy emphasizing Thailand's leading role in the international arena and a desire to be a regional hub for aviation, finance, health services, and food production.

"If Thaksin's idea is influential in Yingluck's foreign policy formulation, one thing we can expect from her government is attempts by Thailand to revive its influence in regional affairs," said Pongphisoot Busbarat, a research associate at the Australian National University.

Yingluck's vision, he added, may at the same time inevitably "further anchor" China's influence in Thailand and the Greater Mekong sub-region including Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, all of which share the Mekong River.

A successful businesswoman, Yingluck, 44, wants to enhance Thailand’s international competitiveness by developing provincial urban areas as well as the domestic railway network in Southeast Asia's second largest economy.
 
"This policy will likely have to synchronize closely with China’s plan to extend high-speed railways to Southeast Asia," Pongphisoot said.

Thailand, a U.S. treaty ally, has become more comfortable with China's rising power than most other countries in Southeast Asia, according to diplomatic cables released recently by WikiLeaks.

Bangkok is negotiating with China to develop within four to five years a high-speed rail network that connects southern China to the Thai-Malaysian border, outgoing Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said in March.

Aside from transport links, China is also promoting electricity grids and energy pipelines among the Southeast Asian mainland states that will greatly reduce its transport reliance on the Straits of Malacca, the narrow but busy waterway straddling Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore.

Thaksin had beefed up links with China during his five-year premiership, when bilateral trade jumped more than four fold to U.S. $25.33 billion in 2006 on the back of increasing Chinese investments and military exchanges.

Competition with U.S.

As Chinese influence rises further and the U.S. moves to help consolidate democracy in Thailand, competition between the two powers will intensify, posing a key challenge to the politically inexperienced Yingluck, analysts said.

Some argue that even as China uses its economic clout to shore up its influence in Bangkok, the U.S. has significant leverage in its ties with its ally.

"Bangkok still cannot get from the China relationship what it obtains from the United States, in terms of high-level military ties and training, as well as effective intelligence cooperation," said Joshua Kurlantzick, a Southeast Asian expert at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations.

In fact, he said, the U.S. should act tough if any groups in Thailand attempt to annul the election result.

"[I]f traditional powers attempt to overthrow the result, either through judicial interference or an outright coup, Washington should come down hard on Thailand, including potentially canceling many aspects of the United States’ close military relationship with Thailand," Kurlantzick said.

The 2006 military coup that brought down populist Thaksin's democratically elected government unleashed a five-year period of  political uncertainty. It also dented business confidence.

In addition, at the regional level, Thailand's key role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) diminished.

"ASEAN used to serve as a cornerstone of Thai foreign policy. Yet, both the Thaksin and Abhisit regimes paid little attention to this regional organisation," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a regional expert at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Tensions with Cambodia

Thailand's bloody border conflict over ownership of an ancient temple with fellow ASEAN member Cambodia also fueled regional tensions.
 
Prime minister-to-be Yingluck "must restore Thai faith in ASEAN" and "may want to rebuild a meaningful dialogue with Cambodia," said Pavin, a former diplomat.

"Conflict along the Thai-Cambodian border has impacted negatively on the whole region, particularly on regional peace and security," he said.

There are indications that the border dispute will be settled.

Thaksin, a close friend of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, said after the elections that Thailand would need to resume a "normal negotiation process" with neighboring countries on border demarcation.

Still, the powerful Thai military has the option of elevating its own status while undermining the new government’s by ramping up tension along the Cambodian border, warned consulting firm IHS Global Insight.

"The use of an external threat to promote domestic interests is a universal and widely practiced tactic," it said in a commentary.

Human rights in Burma

Even as Yingluck moves to nurture the fragile democracy and heal deep divisions at home, researcher Pongphisoot believes she could use her election victory to restore Thailand's standing as a proponent of democracy in the region.

Her dealings with Burma, also called Myanmar, where the military continue to dominate politics despite landmark elections in November, will be closely watched.

She "cannot afford to focus only on reaching economic deals with Naypyidaw (Burma's capital) as her predecessors did with the junta, and pay no attention to Myanmar’s human rights," Pongphisoot said.

She may also be called on to lend her moral support for Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, which could damage bilateral relations, he said.

Yingluck's brother, Thaksin, who was accused of enriching his family business while in power, had offered soft loans to Burma in a much-criticized move.

It exemplified "how foreign policy could be used for accumulating personal wealth, and not national interests," analyst Pavin said.

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