Navigating a Thai path through a new cold war

The US and China have grown increasingly hostile to each other in rhetoric and in policy. Their competitive rivalry may degenerate into a new cold war, to the benefit of no one. The antagonistic relationship between the world’s two most powerful nations presents both a new challenge and a new opportunity for Thailand.

US President Trump has extended his brand of polarising domestic politics — fanning the flames of “blaming the other” and exacerbating divisiveness — into the international arena, abandoning America’s traditional alliances, and aggressively taking on China.

As China lays claims to a major role on the world stage, Xi Jinping’s muscular foreign policy provokes alarm not only in Washington, but also in the capitals of Western Europe and elsewhere. The golden era of Sino-American relations is now buried under the mutual vituperation that Washington and Beijing hurl at each other, under the trade war, and under an escalating military build-up.

It should be apparent that a cold war benefits neither China nor the US. Nor do other countries, which find themselves pressured to align themselves with one side or the other. The Trump administration pushes a boycott of Huawei technology. China conducts coronavirus diplomacy to ingratiate European nations. Beijing and Washington have little to show for these and other clumsy attempts to line countries up behind them.

Since the reigns of King Rama IV and King Rama V in the 19th century, Thailand has been adept in steering an independent foreign policy, balancing menacing major powers off against each other. Only during the three decades of the post-war period did Thailand align itself clearly with the US to secure assistance in combatting a communist threat. During the Vietnam War, Thailand was an important ally of the US. The US and Thai governments enjoyed an extraordinarily close relationship.

After the war, peace came to Southeast Asia and the US established amicable relations with China, so Thailand’s strategic importance was perceived by the US to have diminished. Moreover, turbulence in the Middle East absorbed much of America’s foreign policy attention for several years.

While American interest in Southeast Asia declined, Thailand was gaining strategic value in China’s eyes. As China’s Reform and Opening proceeded under Deng Xiaoping, China saw Thailand as a strategically vital gateway from Yunnan Province to Southeast Asia and its vital crossroads of trade and communication. Securing close relations and support from its southern neighbours, or at least their neutrality, became a geostrategic objective for China.

Thailand used the changed circumstances to revert to an independent, multi-directional foreign policy, maintaining friendly and productive relations with not only the US and China, but also with Russia, Japan, the EU, Australia, and key Asean member states.

Suspicion and distrust between China and the US commenced in president Barack Obama’s second term, and has accelerated under President Trump. As a result, Thailand’s profile in America’s Asian strategic calculus has risen. America and China both seek to establish themselves as dominant influences in Thailand.

But in an increasingly multi-power world, or perhaps a no-polar world, a single power cannot dominate as the US could in the final decades of the last century, or as Britain did in the 19th century. In those simpler times, smaller countries had to both comply with and seek shelter under the military force and economic strength of the mighty.

Today, short of unimaginable all-out war, the ability of the mighty to impose their will on the rest of the world is much reduced, as the US has learned painfully in the Middle East. Guerilla warfare, cyber warfare, non-state actors, area denial and asymmetric warfare strategies, plus a host of other factors, comprise the new reality of international relations, constraining the ability of both China and the US to impose their will on other countries.

How should Thailand navigate a developing cold war between the United States and China, given an international order that is evolving away from the 20th century world of alliances headed by one or the other of the two superpowers, and given the pressures that the US and China will place on Thailand? Thailand’s traditional strength of multi-directional diplomacy, friendly to one and all, siding with neither side in the brewing cold war, but being guided by its own national interests, will serve it well in this new international dispensation.

A multi-directional foreign policy, and its pivotal location at the crossroads of Southeast Asia, gives Thailand bargaining leverage to promote its own interests and avoid taking sides in the emerging Sino-American cold war. Thailand has everything to gain and nothing to lose by continuing its foreign policy of being friends with one and all.

Thailand can use its strengths as a medium-sized, geographically well-placed regional power, and its sophisticated foreign policy capabilities, to assert its own core interests, including maintenance of the health of the Mekong River system, global free trade, an open door for foreign investment with partners of its choice, and international technology exchange.

Thailand’s natural allies are its regional neighbours in Asean, which share many of the same core interests with Thailand. Working with Asean partners, Thailand and Southeast Asian neighbours can set an example of successfully steering an intermediate and independent course between the rival behemoths. In the future, perhaps other blocs, such as the EU, will coordinate with Asean in steering this middle road.

It is improbable that the US and China relationship will revert to the happier times that existed between them two and three decades ago — too much ill will has built up in both nations, and each side has reasons to be disappointed by the conduct of the other. Opportunities on both sides to avoid the slide into hostility were regrettably missed over the years.

But neither is it foreordained that a new cold war should develop between China and the US. The history of Europe in the 20 years prior to the outbreak of World War I in 1914 should be a lesson to both countries to avoid infantile tit-for-tat responses to each other’s provocations. Few catastrophic wars have been as avoidable and unnecessary as World War I.

More mature statesmanship, creative diplomacy, mutual accommodation of the other sides legitimate interests, avoiding demonising “the other”, damping down nationalistic hysteria, and a healthy dose of what the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin has described as “empathetic understanding”, would have avoided the carnage of the World War I. The resemblances between the present increasing friction between China and the US bears unsettling resemblances to those pre-World War I years.

Hopefully, wiser counsels in Washington and Beijing may dial down the rhetoric and moderate the policies of their hostility, and recognise that, while a military confrontation is highly unlikely, the extent to which the world is globally interconnected ensures that the costs of a cold war will injure both sides.

While they can and should compete with each other robustly, and each should stand up for its legitimate and clearly defined interests, it is imperative that they engage with each other to seek solutions to global problems — climate warming, ocean and arctic habitat destruction, terrorism, infectious diseases, rethinking global governance institutions, etc — and also regional issues, such as maintaining the health of the Mekong River environment, handling of refugee flows, and drug suppression.

In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has written of the deteriorating Sino-American relationship that “Southeast Asian countries . . . are especially concerned, as they live at the intersection of the interests of various major powers and must avoid being caught in the middle or forced into invidious choices.”

I write as a patriotic but concerned American who has lived for the past 40 years in Thailand and China. I hope that Thailand will join with other Southeast Asian nations, and other similarly minded nations, to chart a course through the stormy seas of Sino-American rivalry that will be best for Thailand and Asean’s interests, avoid the “invidious choice” of which Prime Minister Lee writes, and perhaps even introduce into world forums a reasoned and moderating voice for engagement over conflict between America and China. This would lead to a win-win outcome not only for Thailand, but also over the long term for China and the US as well.