When King Bhumipol Adulyadej died on October 13, Thailand entered a profound and long-feared transition, from the world’s longest-serving monarch to his heir, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. The Crown Prince is scheduled to be proclaimed king on December 1, but will not be crowned for at least a year. He is not expected to enjoy the high regard - indeed the reverence - of the Thai people that his father had accrued over a seventy-year reign, which raises fears of internal instability. As a result, both the royal transition and daily governmental affairs are managed by the military government of Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who seized power in the 2014 coup.
Under the new constitution midwifed by the junta, elections will take place to select a new government, most likely in 2018. However, the possibilities of prolonged military rule in some form after that are considerable. The constitution mandates an appointed upper house in parliament, whose members will be chosen by the military, and allows for the possibility that the prime minister can be appointed rather than elected. The smart money is on Prayuth’s continued domination of politics as a constitutionally-approved prime minister after 2018.
Since the 2014 coup, Thailand has been inward-looking, with a scaled-down foreign policy. In this interval, U.S.-Thailand relations have deteriorated. U.S. law requires that assistance be withheld when a government is overthrown by a military coup. Over $4 million in U.S. security assistance to Thailand was therefore suspended, and the annual Cobra Gold exercises were downsized, although they were not halted altogether. As a longstanding security ally of the United States, these restrictions rankled the Thai military and Prayuth in particular. Bangkok also objected to Washington’s criticism of the junta’s suppression of political and civic liberties.
This state of affairs between the two allies has provided opportunities for China to advance relations with Thailand, which had been expanding gradually for two decades. Thailand is critical to Beijing’s One Belt, One Road regional framework: the planned north-south railway that will facilitate Chinese trade with Southeast Asia will run through Laos, Thailand and Malaysia to Singapore (although the Thai government is not yet a formal partner, since it finds Beijing’s current financial terms to be unfavorable.) Thailand is not a claimant to the contested islands in the South China Sea and for the most part declines to take a position on China’s sovereignty disputes with the Southeast Asian claimants, which often works in Beijing’s favor. China is Thailand’s largest trading partner (although Japan and the United States are more significant investors), aided by the 2003 China-Thailand Free Trade Agreement.
With U.S.-Thailand disaffection over the coup, Thai security relations with China have expanded to the point that the two militaries now conduct joint land, naval and air exercises, although these are still modest in comparison to cooperation between the Thai and U.S. militaries, even with the present restrictions. Thailand has contracted to purchase three submarines from China. On the political side, the Prayuth government has shown greater willingness to deny sanctuary to Chinese dissidents; over the past year, Bangkok has willingly returned to China Uighurs that the United Nations had classified as refugees. For its part, Beijing has assiduously refrained from criticizing the Prayuth government’s crackdown on political dissent.
But although there is a triangular nature to Thailand’s relations with China and the United States, it would be a mistake to view that dynamic as zero-sum. Bangkok is a supreme balancer of regional powers - a flexible practice the Thais describe as “bamboo diplomacy” - which enabled Thailand to avoid Western colonization in the 19th century. Thai leaders see no conflict in forging equally strong relations with Beijing and Washington, although they are not above playing one against the other on occasion. If relations with one power suffer a downturn, Bangkok will lean toward the other, but to a limited degree. Moreover, Thailand looks beyond the China-U.S. nexus in its balancing act. Under Prayuth, Thai relations with Russia have warmed, and Bangkok sees opportunities to strengthen relations with both Britain and the Continent in the aftermath of Brexit.
With the surprise election of Donald Trump, Bangkok may find openings to improve relations with Washington:
1. The U.S.-Thailand security alliance is significantly different from other U.S. alliances in Asia (with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines) and may therefore fare better under Trump’s critical approach to alliances. Burden-sharing is less of an issue; indeed, the United States arguably benefits from the alliance more than Thailand does at present. Thailand has no major external security threat from which it needs protection, while the U.S. depends upon its smaller ally for access to bases for refueling and repair of ships and planes, as well as flyover rights. If the new administration moves to expand the U.S. naval presence in the Pacific, as Trump has indicated it will, Utapao, the Thai naval base jointly developed with the United States during the Vietnam War, could become a critical chokepoint in that plan.
2. Thailand is not a member of the TransPacific Trade Partnership (TPP), although Prayuth has expressed interest in joining at some point. If, as he promised in the campaign, Trump eschews the TPP in favor of bilateral trade agreements, Washington and Bangkok may revive talks on a U.S.-Thailand Free Trade Agreement. Those foundered in 2006, in part because then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was failing politically, but the FTA may succeed under a more stable regime.
3. Trump’s expressed lack of interest in the environment could be both an advantage and a detriment to Thailand. Overall, Southeast Asia will be acutely affected by climate change and in recent years Thailand has experienced more severe monsoon rains and resulting floods. However, Bangkok would also be under less pressure to abandon its participation in the construction of dams on the Mekong, which will have a severe ecological impact on the downriver countries. Although these dams are being built on the Laotian side of the river, Thailand will be the major consumer of the electricity they will produce.
4. Trump did not raise human rights during the campaign which, rightly or wrongly, has led Bangkok to assume they will not have a high profile in the new administration. This could reduce bilateral tensions over the military’s restrictions on political freedoms, which the junta had anticipated would continue if Clinton had won the election.
If the Trump administration offers opportunities to improve U.S.-Thai relations, Bangkok will likely move to maximize them. What gains Washington may reap, however, can only be calculated when the shape and direction of a Trump foreign policy are more clearly defined.