By Wiraj Sripong
Thailand is seen as getting closer to Beijing after pressure from Washington over the military coup to topple an elected government last May.
Panitan Wattanayagorn, an adviser to Prawit Wongsuwan, deputy prime minister and defence minister, has raised six possible scenarios that he believes could occur.
The first one is the continuation of the American hegemony.
The second one is the growing importance of China to the point it usurps the US’s influence.
Scenario three underlines the possibility of the international community witnessing Sino-US cooperation instead of having only one supreme power.
The fourth one centres on the possibility of the US and China cooperating with other major powers to determine the global order.
The fifth one puts regional organisations at the centre of the international order.
Scenario six would see a return to balanced power, a period in which countries would focus on their own survival.
For the moment, the US will remain the only hegemon enjoying the role of rule-maker, while China would eventually assume that role, said Chulacheeb Chinwanno, an expert in international relations from the Faculty of Political Science at Thammasat University.
The competition between the great powers from the Western hemisphere and the ones from Asia, especially China, will become more apparent in the coming years, said Chulacheeb.
At the regional level, the dynamics of power plays between major powers is no different from the ones that occur at an international level, said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, an international political economy lecturer at the Faculty of Political Science at Chulalongkorn University.
Asean and Thailand, Thitinan said, would have to learn how to use their geographical position and their natural resources as assets to maximise their gains.
This “new great game” of geopolitical competition, according to him, has intensified, especially in mainland Southeast Asia (the Greater Mekong Sub-region), where three major powers – China, the US and Japan – have been actively supporting economic and social developments.
The GMS harbours more than 300 million potential consumers and a combined gross domestic product of more than US$1 trillion (Bt32.5 trillion), he said.
Beijing’s soft power projection, along with Japanese investment in the region, “have helped shape the region’s contours and the economic trajectory of mainland Southeast Asia”, he said.
Thitinan said the US had upped its game in mainland Southeast Asia through an aide programme for development called the Lower Mekong Initiative.
Chulacheeb added this could be considered a sign from Washington that the supreme power wanted to be part of the game despite its domestic preoccupation and its interests in the Middle East, Ukraine and elsewhere.
This political game should be seen as a window of opportunity for all sides, the three prominent scholars agreed. The politico economics and security interdependencies are the underlying key factor to creating a win-win situation for all.
According to Thitinan, the US exerting its maritime power is necessary for regional peace and stability, while the equilibrium in the Sino-Japan relationship could enhance economic growth and increase the level of development in the region.
It is crucial for Asean to come up with a more common position and direction for regional integration, he said, as it would help Asean seize the opportunity deriving from the competition between great powers to invest in the region.
Also, commonalities would help the region strike the right balance between economic growth and development, the three scholars agreed.
Chulacheeb highlighted the importance of Asean centrality – playing the role of a stabiliser for peace and order – when this region has to deal with different challenges.
As for Thailand, the country has long been affected by its domestic political instability, which has impacted on the continuity of its foreign policy. However, the three scholars said Thailand’s geographical position together with its human and natural resources were built-in assets that could not be taken away.
“Thailand needs to harness its strategic location as a geopolitical asset to maximise its position in the global pecking order”, said Thitinan.
For the moment, Thailand is undergoing only short and medium-term strategies in the conduct of its foreign policy, said Panitan.
Panitan added that in order for Thailand to become more proactive in the international scene, it had to adhere to and adjust its goals in relation to international norms, be it trade, politics or human rights.
He said the political transition would be the determining factor that would allow the country to move forward.
Chulacheeb touched on the concept of “balanced strategic engagements” which would facilitate Thailand boosting contacts with its international partners and maximising its gains.
To do so, Thailand would need to play a leading role, he said, adding that Thailand needed to come up with concrete and constructive initiatives in response to current regional and international challenges.