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Thailand playing a risky game with China, Russia

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Thailand’s pro-junta diplomacy has brought severe damage to the country’s standing in the international community. On May 22, Thailand commemorated the second anniversary of the coup that overthrew the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Two years have passed, and the unresolved political stalemate accompanied by a worsening human rights situation tells Western nations that their punitive measures against the junta have been largely impotent.

Since the coup, Western nations have imposed sanctions against the Thai military government, calling for an immediate restoration of democracy.

The United States was first to voice its concerns regarding the increasingly shrinking democratic space in Thailand. It pursued several castigating steps by suspending financial aid worth $4.6 million to the Thai Army, and downgrading Cobra Gold, the region’s largest military exercise between Thailand and the U.S. Furthermore, Thailand in 2014 was excluded from the world’s largest international maritime warfare exercise—the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC).

The European Union also initiated embargoes against the junta by freezing ongoing bilateral cooperation, including its partnership and cooperation agreement with Thailand, which was finalized in November 2013 but has yet to be ratified.

Pro-democracy groups in Thailand have called for the intensification of these sanctions following the recent Universal Periodic Review in the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, which found mushrooming cases of human rights abuses at the hands of the military government.

To alleviate the impact of the Western sanctions, the military government has laid out new strategies to diversify the country’s foreign policy options by forging intimate ties with other powers near and far. Ostensibly, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha was enthusiastic to strengthen his country’s alliance with China. Exchanges of visits between the two countries’ top leaders are regularly held. Thailand has invited China to invest in its high-speed train mega-project. The two sides will also conduct a joint military exercise later this year — similar to Cobra Gold but at a much smaller scale.

In May, Prayuth embarked on a landmark visit to Russia to attend the ASEAN-Russia summit. During a sideline bilateral discussion, Thailand found comfort in the Russian embrace when President Vladimir Putin reaffirmed Moscow’s endorsement of the legitimacy of the Thai military regime. Reportedly, the two countries successfully negotiated arms deals, in retaliation against the U.S. restrictions on arms sales to Thailand.

Thailand’s new foreign policy strategy of alignment with the so-called alternative powers, which include China and Russia, harkens back to its traditional approach seen throughout the course of its diplomatic history. Either in the colonial era or the Cold War period, Thailand adopted a shrewd “bamboo diplomacy” to bend with the prevailing wind. This same strategy also allowed Thailand to play one power against the other, ultimately for the survival of the nation.

Hence, following the diplomatic mishap at the Thai Foreign Ministry in which U.S. Ambassador Glyn T. Davies surprised and embarrassed the host by reading out a statement from the State Department regarding the U.S. position on the Thai human rights situation, the Thai government appeared to exploit Prayuth’s visit to Russia to convey its new allegiance toward the Russian leadership. Thailand hoped that by choosing Russia as a bedfellow, it could simply augment its diplomatic weight against Washington.

In the short run, this kind of tactic might have been effective. Since the U.S. has refused to recognize the Prayuth government, Thailand has searched for new providers of legitimacy to solidify its position on the global stage. Internally, the endorsement from China and Russia has directly boosted the confidence of the Thai political leaders to prolong their rule amid Western condemnation.

However, in the long run, the bamboo diplomacy of leaning toward China and Russia could prove to be myopic in the game of international politics. Although there is a long list of irritants in the relationship between the West and China as well as between the West and Russia, it would be naive for Thailand to imagine that Beijing and Moscow would stand up to defend Bangkok if the latter’s political violence breaks out as a result of its increasing repression of the public.

It is true that the U.S. is still at loggerheads with China and Russia over a variety of issues, from the conflict in the South China Sea and nuclear proliferation on the Korean Peninsula to the U.S. policy in Syria and the surge of terrorism in Europe. But at the same time, Washington has reached out to Beijing and Moscow in an attempt to establish a balance of power through cooperation on other fronts.

Hence, the approach of playing Russia and China off against the U.S. is overrated and may not guarantee real success on Thailand’s part. On the contrary, being drawn into the supposedly embracing arms of China and Russia could cost Thailand more, in terms of being subject to heftier sanctions should the junta’s confidence in its new international alliance translate into boldness for renewed dissident crackdowns.

In the long run too, Thailand’s cozying up with alternative powers like China and Russia, whose values and principles on democracy are vague or even nonexistent, would inevitably place Thailand in a low-trust category.

In Southeast Asia, Thailand has long played a key part in regional politics. In its global ambitions, Thailand once nominated its candidate for the position of the U.N. secretary-general and is now campaigning to become a nonpermanent member of the U.N. Security Council.

But bamboo diplomacy, which currently witnesses Thailand riding on the Chinese and Russian wind, may prove disastrous for Thailand’s global trust. A despotic regime may come and go, but trust in the country on the global stage will constantly be judged. Once it is lost, rebuilding it will be arduous.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.