The Royal Thai Navy’s interest in purchasing submarines from China has sparked off a furious debate on geopolitics and U.S.-China power struggles. The Thai elites have articulated an urgent requirement to build up the country’s military capacity in order to be at par with other countries in the region. The Navy has expressed an interest in buying three submarines from China in a bid to cement Thailand’s position in Asian political and defence power structures.
Thailand’s move towards military modernization has been one of many in recent times, all part of the South Asian trend of building a strong marine military presence. The South Asian submarine race, as it has been dubbed, has strongly influenced the defence climate in South Asia. Indonesia plans to fortify its fleet by 2018 by buying submarines from South Korea and Germany while Russia has sold six submarines to Vietnam, raising its fleet from four to ten. In 2012 Malaysia announced two French-engineered submarines.
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In light of these events, Thailand has expressed an interest in strengthening its own maritime military capacity. Though the country has stated that the submarines will not be used to go to war with any other state in the region and are only a strategic investment into deterrence, the interest in transacting with China has drawn the attention of the international community. Coupled with the political instability that has plagued Thailand and the recent shift in the country’s governance system, the possibility of a military deal with China has invoked some caution on part of the West in general and the United States in particular.
Even as stronger ties with China offer some undeniable advantages to Thailand within the regional setting, the preference for China over more traditional bidding players such as Sweden and Germany for military alliances has raised eyebrows both internationally and within the country itself. The general public remains unconvinced that preparing for potential future conflicts at sea (though there have been no indications of the same) justifies spending B36 billion on the deal with China.
Weakening Thai-U.S. Relations
Though Thailand and the U.S. have enjoyed historically friendly relations, these developments come in the wake of a series of events that political experts all over the world have dubbed as a “splintering” of Thai-U.S. relations.
The May 2014 coup by the Thai military junta has led to strained ties with the United States. The United States has been reluctant to endorse the military elite, whilst the Chinese government has welcomed them politically and publically. The dichotomy in responses might well serve to induce a change in international strategic relations; the United States’ less-than-encouraging responses are in complete contrast to the authority and credibility the Thai junta has enjoyed as a result of its growing links with China. The ties with China have been appreciated by the national elites because they herald greater regional status and influence for Thailand. At the same time, the growing distance with the U.S. has been blamed for a loss of respect and legitimacy in the global community, as was recently assessed by Thitinan Pongsudhirak, the Director of Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Security and International Studies.
The U.S.’s decision to water down its participation in the yearly Cobra Gold military exercises organized in partnership with Thailand after the 2014 coup, as well as suspending the same for 2016, has unmistakably signaled the West’s displeasure at the Thai military regime. Combined with the sanctions imposed by the U.S. and Europe and a refusal to supply military support, these actions have led the Thai leadership to accuse the West of alienation and military interference.
As such, while ties with the West have become lukewarm, China’s move towards collaboration has been welcomed. On part of the Thai leadership, it is a message to the West that its lack of support has not gone unnoticed and if Thailand chooses to, it will pursue a multifaceted relationship with China irrespective of America’s stance on the same.
The Recent Face Of Sino-Thai Relations
China’s Defence Minister Chang Wanquan visited Thailand from February 5-7 2015. Meeting with his Thai colleague, Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, the Chinese minister expressed an interest in working with Thailand while respecting the latter’s sovereignty in all theoretical and practical spheres. This sentiment has been widely interpreted by many as an allusion to the United States’ expression of displeasure with the Thai governance.
The interest expressed by the Thai government in purchasing submarines from China is not the only indication of the two countries looking towards a future of greater collaboration: Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited Thailand in December 2014 and was the first political figure of his ilk to do so after the Thai military junta took over the state in 2014. His visit produced two noteworthy developments; there are talks of a railways development project between the two nations and also of an agreement by way of which China will procure stocks of rice, rubber and other commodities from Thailand. Aimed at bolstering Thailand’s flailing economic and infrastructural conditions after a significant cooling off of relations with the U.S. and Europe post-coup, these tie-ups with China have been hailed by the Thai government as a sign of Chinese generosity and regional leadership. The fact that the development of the railway system will also allow China greater land access across Asia, whilst improving transport for Thailand, might prove to be another thorn in the West’s side. Though Sino-Thai history is littered with failed attempts at similar partnerships in the past, the most recent efforts are noticeably more potent as a result of the global geopolitical climate in which they might shape up.
As part of the February 2015 visit, the two countries also expressed a commitment towards cooperating on defence training, military drills and strategic cooperation. Political enthusiasts have cautioned that the fruition of such a partnership could invariably spell out a complete restructuring of the South Asian region, possibly in conflict with ASEAN’s ideals of regional cooperation. It will also undoubtedly cause a reconfiguration of the global world order; the U.S.-China struggle for global dominance, even if it is not formally acknowledged, continues to be one of the most compelling defining forces of the modern international system.
The Potential Impact Of Thailand’s deal with China: Why Does It Matter?
The United States is understandably wary of the growing ties between Thailand and China; defence-oriented ties with Thailand might serve to deepen China’s already-rising influence in Asia. China’s interest in augmenting its military influence over the Asian region is of direct concern to the United States, especially with respect to its ‘pivot to Asia’ policy. The U.S.’s decision to rebrand foreign policy to focus on Asia has been met with suspicion and resistance on part of the larger Asian powers like Russia and China, with the latter alleging that this rebalancing of approaches amounts to the U.S.’s ‘China containment’ strategy.
The United States’ interests in developing its security, strategic and economic ties and interests in Asia stand to be severely affected if the regional status-quo is disturbed by the expansion of a new relationship between China and Thailand. Any change in power positions in favor of China threaten to upset the United States’ efforts towards creating a more East/Asia-centric foreign policy. China’s growing influence in the region has been well documented as cause for alarm, since it effectively signals probable roadblocks and resistance to American interests in the region. The United States’ desire to create lasting partnerships with Asian countries and further ideals of democracy, globalization, economic alliance, trade and political interdependence could be dealt a severe blow if the Chinese military presence in the region were to magnify.
China has already affected the international world order as a result of its newly realized ties with Pakistan. The Asian state, once recognized for its alliances with the United States, has clinched an arrangement to purchase as many as eight submarines from China. The move towards Pakistan, also known for its strained relations with India, has significantly altered geopolitical systems in South Asia. The South Asian countries have noticeably shifted their economic and political agendas and views from looking outwards towards the West to looking inwards and training their sights closer home.
Washington is concerned over Asian countries closing off to the United States; this blow could come in either of two ways: as a result of the countries’ growing alliances with China or from being otherwise occupied as a result of local and geopolitical threats created because of China’s growing influence and military presence in the region.
First Pakistan, and now Thailand’s move towards China hints at a definite shift in political currents; purchasing submarines from another country has been historically and academically established as an investment in long-term relationships between countries. The level of military, economic and political commitments involved could significantly alter the world order in China’s favor. The United States is clearly concerned that the culmination of a deal with Thailand will provide China with deeper inroads into the Asian military and defence power-base.
Where Does This Leave The United States?
It is worth noting, however, that despite the changing political climate, Thailand has held off on its decision to purchase submarines from China as yet. Many political commentators have expressed the view that despite the current political atmosphere indicating an all-time low for Thai-U.S. relations, the former is still weighing the situation carefully to average out the costs of acting on the new partnership against the benefits it poses.
While Thai officials are yet to confirm or deny the U.S.’s influence in the delay, political pundits are certain that Thailand, keen as though the government is to assert its authority, is not looking to severe ties with the United States just yet.
The article with Pongsudhirak’s analysis, “Thai Chinese Sub Buy Challenges US Pivot”, can be accessed here.