By The Nation
Thailand’s foreign policy was hardly mentioned during campaigning for the March 24 election.
That omission was unfortunate given that whoever comes to power in Bangkok will have to contend with the rise of China.
It would have been nice to get some idea of where the next government will position Thailand amid China’s growing presence in the region and the wider world.
Our pressing foreign policy issues are no longer traditional security threats but instead mega-infrastructure investments such as China’s Belt and Road initiative, and doctrine to defend free trade like Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy.
Yet looming behind those issues is a broader threat to the stability and security of our region. That threat is crystallised in a question posed by the Nikkei Asian Review yesterday: “A Chinese military base in Southeast Asia? Some say it’s inevitable,” reads the headline. The article notes that China has provoked international outcry for building military facilities in the disputed South China Sea. “But there is another controversial aspect of its global expansion: the sense that, sooner or later, it will need overseas military bases beyond its single existing facility in Djibouti, Africa,” it adds, pointing to growing concern that China’s intercontinental infrastructure initiative – spanning Myanmar and Cambodia to Pakistan and Sri Lanka – will be accompanied by military development.
China’s longstanding rival America has warned that a Chinese military base in Southeast Asia would threaten regional stability.
But some observers think it’s only a matter of time before Beijing plants military boots on the ground.
“The Chinese will probably eventually have a base in Cambodia,” said Bilahari Kausikan, Singapore’s former Foreign Ministry permanent secretary.
“But I don’t get too excited about it. After all, the Americans have significant use of Singapore facilities, are beginning to reuse some old Philippine and Thai bases, and make occasional use of Malaysian facilities too,” Bilahari told the Nikkei Asian Review.
He also thinks the US will eventually turn to Vietnam and Indonesia to establish low-key military facilities.
The Chinese military does not have the extensive foreign experience that their US counterpart enjoys. However, Southeast Asian leaders know only too well the power of China’s arm-twisting diplomacy.
This brings us back to the incoming Thai government, which will likely be led by the military-backed Phalang Pracharat Party.
It must now forge a clear policy on Thailand’s stance in this new regional security environment. Would Bangkok, for instance, tolerate a Chinese military base in Cambodia?
Regional tensions may not be on the scale of the Cold War and the Killing Fields of the 1970s, but the stakes are just as high and the political theatre perhaps even more complicated.
It’s tempting to brush the situation off as a conflict between the US and China. But as the two superpowers
slug it out in the world’s forums, Thailand needs to think long and hard about where it stands.
For now, Bangkok can pat itself in the back over improving ties with neighbouring Myanmar. But let’s not forget that the mess along the border – including rampant drugs- and human-trafficking, a separatist insurgency and overlapping territorial claims – still help define relations between the two countries.
Unfortunately, from the silence of the campaign season to the noise of post-election horse-trading, our future leaders appear focused on narrow issues of political self-interest. But sooner or later, Beijing and Washington will come knocking on their doors. Let’s hope that they don’t do anything stupid.