Thai-Australian ties in the regional mix
Unlike the externally originated coronavirus pandemic, the mass protests in the United States in the aftermath of George Floyd’s wrongful death at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis are internally driven. Seen from outside, the public fury, street demonstrations and ensuing violence over the fatal suffocation of Floyd, a black man, yield geopolitical ramifications. If the US is socially unwell and geopolitically unreliable, regional states in Asia will have to respond accordingly in view of the US-China rivalry and competition. A case in point is Thailand-Australia relations in the regional mix.
Much will have to be dissected and internalised from Floyd’s disturbing death, his breath giving out under the knee of a white policeman. Racism, sadly lamented from time to time, is the modern manifestation of America’s “original sin” from slavery long ago. It can be mitigated and managed over the decades but it is ultimately intractable. This time, Floyd’s gruesome murder may have been a fuse that lit up not just age-old racial tensions but also pent-up frustrations from multiple sources that range from President Donald Trump’s politics of polarisation and partisanship to pandemic effects that have led to lockdowns, lost jobs, bankruptcies, and economic downturn.
While Americans figure out what it is that is so wrong with their country — and all that remains right and resilient — the Southeast Asian neighbourhood is broadly alarmed. If the US is so self-absorbed and internally conflicted, with a mighty military but a slowing economy and deeply divided society, the reigning superpower will have a tough time leading the rules-based global order it crafted after the last world war.
China, in the face of fair and right criticisms of its draconian and systematic suppression of dissent and freedom of expression, appears calmer and more collected. The street protests and images of wanton violence, vandalism and looting in the US will not appeal to Asian states and societies as an example to follow. It is not as if China will automatically be the role model for governance. Yet the US as a troubled democracy may reinforce China-supported authoritarian inroads in the region.
Thailand is a good example in view of its democratic rollback and military-authoritarian resurgence. Its domestic political polarisation and geopolitical outlook are consequential for Western democracies like the US and Australia. On the face of it, Thailand and Australia hold much in common as two of the five US treaty allies dating to the Cold War decades, the others being South Korea, Japan and the Philippines. In the past, Thailand and Australia have played mutually reinforcing roles in Washington’s so-called “hub-and-spokes” foreign policy projection.
Bilateral relations between Thailand and Australia have moved from strength to strength over that time, underlined by a two-way free-trade agreement during the Thaksin Shinawatra government in the early 2000s, While Canberra is a major Asean dialogue partner, Thailand and Australia also have played key roles together in the architecture-building projects for regional peace and prosperity from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and Asean Regional Forum to the East Asia Summit and Asean Defence Ministers Meeting-Plus.
Notwithstanding the gamut of their bilateral cooperation in a region-wide framework, Thailand and Australia’s geostrategic interests appear increasingly divergent. Somewhat analogous but to a lesser extent, Thai-Australian relations are drifting apart just like Thai-US ties.
Remarkably, Australia was the first Western democracy to accept Thailand’s new political realities by engaging with the coup regime as early as May 2015, even while the US administration under President Barack Obama and European governments gave the ruling Thai generals the cold shoulder. In other words, Australian policy elites were spot-on in their sober and smart understanding of Thailand’s political power plays and nuances. But they may have underestimated the solidification and consolidation of the Bangkok-Beijing axis at the expense of the US and the EU.
While the junta-backed Thai government moved closer to China in 2014-19, Australia concurrently went the other way. In turn, souring Australia-China relations have impinged on Canberra’s dealings with Thailand and some of the other Southeast Asian governments. Apart from Thailand, the Philippines has been another US treaty ally that has conspicuously warmed up to Beijing while spurning Washington. On the other hand, bilateral cooperation between Australia and Vietnam, the latter with prickly relations with China over the South China Sea, has been stepped up markedly.
Alongside the US, Australia’s assertive role in the “Quad” of countries representing the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) framework, together with India and Japan, may also risk alienating Canberra from the regional fold. Under Thailand’s chairmanship in 2019, Asean came up with the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), which aims to maintain Asean’s role as the front and centre of action for regional cooperation towards peace and security.
Many have viewed the Quad-backed FOIP as a counterweight to China’s geostrategic Belt and Road Initiative. But as China and the US compete for geostrategic advantages, Asean wants to retain its relevance and central role in the region. Different Asean governments, however, follow different approaches, some more favourable towards Beijing than others.
The coronavirus pandemic further underscores the Asean split around China, as mainland Southeast Asian countries of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand were slower to impose travel curbs against China compared to Vietnam and maritime nations such as Indonesia and Singapore. China’s relatively fast recovery from the pandemic and reopening of its economy have posed a new proposition to Asean member states and beyond.
If the 2008-09 Global Financial Crisis enabled China’s rise, the coronavirus crisis in 2020-21 may well solidify China’s pre-eminence as a superpower, second to none. Many countries, including Thailand, are coming round to this new geopolitical reality. Thailand and a host of other countries are unlikely to openly support, for example, US lawsuits against China for mismanaging the virus outbreak or Australia’s call for an independent investigation of the virus origin in China.
China, more than the US, is the most divisive issue in Thai-Australian relations, fundamentally underpinned by domestic political outcomes. If Thailand takes a democratic turn away from authoritarian ways, then its geopolitical posture could shift significantly, albeit not substantially, away from Beijing. But whatever shades of democracy or autocracy Thailand ends up with, Bangkok’s drift away from Washington appears longer-term. Thailand-Australia ties fit within this frame, largely determined by Canberra’s strategic calculations vis-à-vis Beijing. The US’s ongoing and longer-term home-grown adversity will increase the costs of standing up to China for Australia, Thailand, and all other regional states.