Three months after his election, a month after inauguration, Donald Trump has not publicly mentioned Thailand. Yet in a looming foreign policy crisis over the South China Sea, the seeds of which the president partly inherited and has partly sowed, the kingdom is poised to play an outsized and oppositional role.
China has territorial disputes over the South China Sea with five Southeast Asian nations and a sixth with Taiwan. In July 2016, a UN maritime tribunal ruled China’s means of demarcating territory unlawful. Beijing’s defiance notwithstanding, this ruling put most of China’s claims on shaky legal ground, to say nothing of its 3,000 acres of artificial islands constructed since 2013.
As candidate, Trump used the presidential debates to deliver an economic indictment against China—manufacturing threat, currency manipulator, climate change propagandist—and announced plans to increase the US Navy’s fleet from 272 to 350 ships. If the China claims were aimed at viewers and votes, the naval announcement was likely the more clearly heard in Beijing.
Following the election, Trump raised the stakes by taking a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s president, and his nominee for secretary of state said the US should block Chinese naval access to the South China Sea’s disputed islands. Four days into the administration, Trump’s press secretary vowed to defend such islands in “international waters and not part of China proper,” words his defense secretary later walked back.
The phone call not only seemed to upend four decades of US policy, but was publicly “justified” by Trump with reference to equally sensitive weapons sales to Taiwan. Blocking Chinese access, likewise contradicting longstanding US adherence to freedom of navigation, would discredit the main justification for American ships in the South China Sea as well. It would also be unlawful.
Often seen as separate issues, Taiwan in fact marks the northernmost point of the South China Sea, thereby linking Beijing’s “One China” policy with its new littoral irredentism. And while Trump’s affirmation of One China on a call with China’s president was welcomed by Beijing, he also assigned to his National Security Council an advisor who last year predicted, “We’re going to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years.”
The Chinese, having described both Taiwan and the sea as “core national interests” against which the US would indeed have to “wage war,” are stirred.
To be fair, Trump is being forced to play catch-up. The Obama administration did not so much “pivot” to Asia as manage a shuffle. Introduced in 2009 and detailed by Hillary Clinton two years later, the pivot—already a decade past due—was virtually dead on arrival. The underwhelming transfer of 2,500 marines to Western Australia, begun five years ago, remains incomplete. In that sense, a recent pledge by the US ambassador to Thailand of “continuity” in bilateral relations, presumably intended to reassure his hosts, was more cause for resignation.
Trump’s attention to Southeast Asia is thus timely, and he cannot be expected to simply embrace the policy of his chief opponent. But his moves thus far, replacing the noncommittal with the cavalier, both advance a regional crisis and place the US at further geopolitical disadvantage if it comes.
Despite being both a bilateral and multilateral US treaty ally, as well as holding major non-NATO status, Thailand has hardly factored into Washington’s regional strategy. Clinton devoted a single sentence to Thailand in her lengthy articulation of the “pivot,” while Obama’s visit to the kingdom in 2012 was long on pledges and short on follow-up. Thailand’s 2014 coup d’etat was both a result of declining US influence in the country and the cause of historical lows since. A self-defeating law compelled the Americans to suspend their main program for training and educating the Thai military, alongside a paltry cut of $3.5 million in military aid.
In contrast, the People’s Republic of China has been slowly supplanting the US in Thailand since the Asian financial crisis 20 years ago. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra welcomed and accelerated China’s regional rise for six years starting in 2001. His flagship Asia Cooperation Dialogue gave pride of place to Beijing and pointedly excluded Washington. More importantly, since his overthrow, Thaksin’s opponents and nominees alike have maintained his pro-China orientation.
In just the three years under his sister Yingluck’s government ending in 2014, Thailand saw China become its leading trading partner and its second largest source of foreign investment. The latter had sat at a mere 1 percent in 2006. China’s premier became the first foreign national to ever address Thailand’s parliament, while joint naval and marine exercises were added to Sino-Thai army drills begun under Thaksin. China also built a submarine dock and training facility on Thailand’s eastern shore, and increased shipments of “dual use” oil and rubber up the Mekong River.
Critically, these efforts were pursuant to a bilateral strategic partnership, originally signed by Thaksin but repeatedly expanded through 2016. Indeed, under the current military government, the first joint air force exercises between the two countries took place in 2015. This year’s defense budget includes the purchase of three Chinese submarines and the first of 10 tanks to be purchased from China by 2020. In January, Thailand announced intentions to develop a joint weapons and defense industry to facilitate increased procurement of Chinese arms.
If Thai objectives are political and financial, China’s are coldly geopolitical. Thailand separates the narrow Straits of Malacca from the contentious South China Sea. Through the straits passes one-third of global trade and two-thirds of all oil and liquefied natural gas, and even higher percentages of what China exports and consumes. The South China Sea is also believed to be resource-rich. That the US secretary of state is a former ExxonMobil executive has no doubt caught Beijing’s attention.
The problem for China is that the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet effectively controls the Straits of Malacca, compromising China’s primary maritime access to the Andaman Sea, Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. In a crisis, China’s ability to move ships and supplies could be stymied. Thailand’s narrow Isthmus of Kra, however, also separating the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea on the east from the waters on the west, holds the key to bypassing the straits.
In May 2015, China and Thailand reportedly signed a memorandum of understanding on the construction of a long-discussed canal across the isthmus, a project in which the US has shown no interest since the 1970s. While both sides issued denials, the report followed a sharp rise in canal-related activity under both Thaksin and Yingluck. In January 2016, a member of Thailand’s royal Privy Council wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Prayuth, advocating new feasibility studies. Last month, Prayuth remarked that a canal should be debated by future governments.
Since 2006, Thailand has strictly adhered to the One China policy: Taiwan, Tibet, the Falungong, Uyghur “separatists.” And as the only nation in Southeast Asia that can claim membership of both its mainland and maritime regions, Thailand is a non-claimant in the South China Sea. In a crisis over either issue and thus involving the United States, Thailand is ripe to tip China’s way.
Treaty obligations might prevail in actual armed conflict, but in any matter leading up to violence, these would make little difference and may be too late. The Philippines, the only other US treaty ally in Southeast Asia, took the claims case against China to the international maritime tribunal. By the time of the decision, however, a new president had come to power—who promptly shelved the victory, announced a “breakup” with the United States, and pledged cooperation with an emboldened China.
Thailand can no longer be counted on, and won’t remain off Trump’s radar for long.
Benjamin Zawacki is author of the forthcoming book, Thailand: Shifting Ground Between the US and a Rising China (Zed Books / University of Chicago Press, August 2017) This is reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal, the webside of the Yale University Center for the Study of Globalization.