US President Joe Biden meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a virtual summit of the Roosevelt Room in the White House in Washington, DC, November 15, 2021. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP)
It is complicated to try to navigate the current hostility between the two great superpowers, the United States and China, while the war between Russia and Ukraine continues to rage. Even worse, it is highly likely that the war will drag on, as neither Washington nor Moscow are in the mood for a conciliatory gesture. Under these circumstances, Thailand and the rest of the world will have to adapt and adjust their domestic and foreign policies in order to adapt to the overall shifts. This time it is extremely difficult. The stakes are high for everyone involved, near and far.
Both superpowers have long-standing close ties to Thailand. In fact, in the divided world, it is rare to find such countries that can maintain healthy relationships with both. Throughout the Cold War, this nation of 70 million was successfully engaged with all the great powers without jeopardizing its economic and social development. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, the global environment has changed markedly, with greater unpredictability due to new emerging powers asserting themselves. These trends have been further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the economic downturn and the rise of nationalism, just to name a few.
Unlike the rest of Southeast Asia, Thailand is an independent country that has never come under colonial rule. Throughout its history, Thailand has had its own survival approach to staying out of trouble. So far so good. Today, however, all sorts of problems come into the region and they are more complicated and difficult to deal with as there are several actors with different interests and strategies. Therefore, Thailand requires additional skills and maneuverability to survive the current terrain.
As of today, Thailand is sandwiched between the United States and China, both of which want to retain their influence in the region. When their bilateral ties were amicable, Thailand gained enormous advantage due to the stability and “business as usual” modus operandi. China is a rapidly growing power and has made steady progress in strengthening ties with regional partners in all areas of cooperation. Any attempt to disrupt this dynamic will struggle.
It is under these circumstances that the United States is developing a new policy towards China. Under the Biden administration, Washington wants to increase cooperation and support from allies and friends in the region. As such, the United States hopes the new coalition will be able to limit China’s influence, especially in economic matters. The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), recently announced by the White House, would serve as a new platform from which the United States could move up the ladder in terms of investment in the region. Thailand is expected to join IPEF. Other ASEAN members, such as Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia, have welcomed the new US economic engagement plan.
One warning, however, is in place: Whatever plan the United States has in mind, it must not hold any regional country hostage in the strategic competition between the United States and China. It is clear that Russia’s global power and influence will diminish after the brutal war in Ukraine. Washington seems to want to spend more of its energy on projecting its power into and commitment to the Indo-Pacific region.
Thailand will continue to engage both the United States and China, based on its national interests. As an American ally, Thailand and the United States have collaborated on a wide range of issues, including joint military exercises and security cooperation. These bands will continue with undiminished strength. After all, the country is still heavily dependent on the US security umbrella. It will remain unchanged. However, with China’s influence wide and fast, relations between Thailand and China have already been transformed from economic-cum-development-oriented policies to more strategic areas. This is a new development – a work in progress.
Thailand is a major regional player in ASEAN. Its policy has been to support ASEAN centrality and ASEAN-led mechanisms. Therefore, Thailand has never changed its ASEAN-oriented foreign policy despite numerous coups and changes of government since its founding in 1967. Within the ASEAN context, Thailand will continue to use ASEAN as a focal point for all major powers to engage with each other. With the growing rivalry between the United States and China, such efforts will become more difficult, but they can still be done.
As host of APEC 2022, Thailand hopes that by then the global mood will be more conducive to dialogue. As in the past, APEC discussions often reflected what was going on around the world at a time when the 22 economies were the global economic drivers. In November, Thailand will certainly serve as a meeting place where one can reset ties and policies that have endangered the world. Let’s cross our fingers.