A reluctant ally? Thailand in the US balancing strategy

Kitti Prasirtsuk, William Tow

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


    Perhaps more than any other formal US ally in Asia, Thailand has been successful in striking a careful balance between sustaining cordial alliance relations with Washington and pursuing an intensifying and comprehensive relationship with China. Such a quest is hardly unique in Thai history. Thailand has survived as an independent state even during the years of Western colonization and the Japanese invasion by successfully ‘bending with the wind’ – identifying the correct timing and circumstances as to when it must deal with various great powers without incurring the long-term animosity of any one of them (Kislenko 2002). Accordingly, the Barack Obama Administration’s rebalancing initiativepresents Thailand with a unique policy challenge. By implication, the United States is signalling that it is not only ‘back’ in Asia as a strategic player, but it is also expecting formal treaty allies such as Thailand to engage in greater ‘capacity building’ in order to facilitate a regional power balance designed to preclude growing Chinese power from transforming into Chinese regional hegemony. This at least implicitly contradicts Thailand’s traditional strategic logic which rests on the assumption that it will be granted sufficient leeway by both the United States and China to shape its own form of alliance and strategic relations with them, and largely on its own terms. Such a contradiction may further intensify in the aftermath of the Thai military assuming power in the country during late May 2014 and the subsequent US levying of sanctions against Thailand. How Thailand responds to increased US pressure will be a key test case for how other US allies and various US security partners – each with their own version of reconciling the dichotomy of SinoAmerican influence and rivalries in the Asia-Pacific – might shape regional order building in accordance with their national security and broader policy interests. This chapter argues that Thailand will only be a ‘reluctant ally’ of theUnited States if the rebalancing strategy evolves in ways that privilege the military and geopolitical dimensions of regional politics. If the Obama Administration and its successors are effective in cultivating a wide-ranging rebalancing posture and in modifying the American tendency to link Washington’s own version of democratic politics with an insistence that Thaileaders conform to Western norms, Thailand will perceive, welcome and cultivate areas of policy convergence between the United States and itself. A broader approach to rebalancing will dovetail with traditional Thai preferences for creating ‘room to manoeuvre’ when dealing with great power politics and rivalries. In the Sino-American case, for example, Thailand can resort to nurturing viable and enduring avenues of cooperation in the economic, diplomatic and security sectors – often using its membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a bridge for pursuing such interaction and, where possible, highlighting successful collaboration with both powers in relatively low-key or low-risk, non-traditional security sectors. Such an outcome would conform to both China’s preference for dealing with its regional neighbours on a ‘win-win’ basis, and with the Obama Administration’s stated preference to apply rebalancing across a wide range of policy areas. This chapter initially provides a brief survey of developments in Thai-USsecurity relations, both preceding and following US President George W. Bush’s December 2003 announcement that Thailand would be regarded as a ‘major non-NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] ally’. In reality, the extent to which Thailand has conformed to Bush’s original expectation of supporting US global security policy in return for continued US military assistance is debatable. Thailand’s ongoing policy dilemma of adjudicating its traditional status as a US security treaty ally with its increasing propensity to adopt a ‘hedging strategy’ in its relations with great powers is then examined. This relates to the very difficult process of alliance transition in the post-Cold War era and to the extent that Thailand can still be considered a US ‘ally’ as opposed to a more qualified US security ‘partner’ for achieving selected policy objectives where the two interests coincide. The chapter concludes by offering a few policy observations on how the process of reconciling Thailand’s national security imperatives with selected US regional security interests may already be under way, and how that process might be sustained despite recent bilateral tensions precipitated by Thailand’s domestic politics.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationThe New US Strategy towards Asia: Adapting to the American Pivot
    Editors William T. Tow and Douglas Stuart
    Place of PublicationAbingdon and New York
    PublisherRoutledge Taylor & Francis Group
    ISBN (Print)9781138822634
    Publication statusPublished - 2015


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