Taiwan may emerge as a significant issue over the coming months and years as aggressive military moves this week over the island have confirmed fears expressed by international security and intelligence experts that it is under threat from Chinese military action, an event that, one way or the other, would fundamentally alter the power dynamics in the region.
The US Ambassador to Thailand resigned his post last week as the Thai government leader and the Head of State welcomed a new US President on to the world stage. Rising tensions between the US and China, a more challenging trade environment as Thai exports stateside have grown considerably resulting in a widening a US deficit between the two countries and ongoing street protests are key factors in a relationship that is still one of fundamental importance to the kingdom.
The US ambassador to Thailand took his leave this week after a meeting on Tuesday with Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha. Michael G De Sombre had only arrived early last year having been confirmed by the US Senate on January 8th 2020 after he was appointed by former US President Donald Trump in July 2019.
The former international commercial lawyer who had extensive experience in Asia, was the first political appointee to the role in 40 years.
Deepening business ties between Thailand and the United States was the theme of the US envoy’s tenure
Since his meeting at Government House with the Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha in April 2020, Ambassador De Sombre has been focused on strengthening commercial ties between Thailand and the United States.
Not afraid of being robust, De Sombre promised later last year that America was a better friend for Thailand as the standoff between America and Thailand’s powerful northern neighbour intensified over the Covid-19 virus, trade and most significantly for the future, the status of the South China Seas and Taiwan.
One of Mr De Sombre’s last public engagements, conducted online because of the current pandemic, was a seminar titled: ‘Select USA: Helping Thai Companies Go Global’ which attempted to forge closer links between Thai and US firms.
The US Ambassador stepped down before the inauguration of Joe Biden as 46th US President in Washington DC on Wednesday.
Thai King and PM sent warm letters of congratulations to new President Joe Biden last week
Mr Biden’s assumption of power drew warm notes of congratulations both from His Majesty the King and the Prime Minister. The Thai monarch emphasised the deep and long friendships between the kingdom and the United States going back 200 years.
‘Thailand, as a beneficiary of the oldest friendship the United States has with any Asian country spanning some 200 years, as well as a longstanding ally, is steadfast in our commitment to standing by the United States in facing those challenges. We are equally confident that, with your support and guidance, this time-honoured partnership can only grow stronger and closer, not only for the benefit of our two countries but also as a meaningful contribution to regional peace and stability,’ wrote King Maha Vajiralongkorn in a letter addressed to the 46th US President at the White House.
Trouble is brewing over Taiwan
Over the weekend, there were clear signs that a crisis may be brewing over Taiwan.
Beijing gave the go-ahead for the Chinese coast guard to fire on foreign vessels in the South China Sea while a squadron of 6 nuclear-capable bombers and 4 advanced fighters flew into Taiwanese airspace off to the south of the island.
This had not happened before and shows aggressive intent.
Many experts including former US navy intelligence officer, James Fanell, have warned that China’s expansionist policies must inevitably lead to military action in relation to Taiwan, an independent state of 25 million people formed after the Nationalist Chinese Army took refuge there after losing to the communists on mainland China in 1949.
China asserts that the island is a renegade province that must, sooner or later, return to the fold either by peaceful or other means.
In the Communist country on the mainland, Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ing-wen is seen as an arch-foe of Beijing with military preparations to target her in the event of an invasion.
Former Australian PM Kevin Rudd warns of the danger of military conflict between the US and China
Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, an expert on China, warned last year that the eruption of military conflict over Taiwan and the South China Sea in the period leading up to the US election on November 3rd was a distinct possibility due to nationalistic impulses on both sides.
Military action by China over Taiwan would have huge consequences. The Trump administration had been quietly assembling and realigning US military assets towards countering an invasion of the island.
On the other hand, the Chinese, committed to taking it, have warned again in recent times, that military force is an option and that its forces are preparing for the task.
The White House, in its first days attending to business, through spokeswoman Emily Horne of the National Security Council has issued a statement saying the US support for Taiwan remains ‘rock solid’ in the face of such provocation.
War over Taiwan would have profound implications
Successful occupation of the island by Chinese military forces would throw the region into turmoil and have as of yet unpredicted consequences.
All we can say for sure is that such an event would have profound implications for US and Chinese influence in the Asia Pacific with consequences for all countries.
Thailand must prepare for the challenges of the Biden Presidency that may combine an ideological agenda with pragmatism especially in the Asia Pacific
Meanwhile, the Thai government is being strongly warned, based on the initial few days of the Biden Presidency which has seen a decisive determination to pursue its left of centre agenda domestically. Experts, including key academics, suggest that Thai officials should be prepared for an ideological focus on human rights and environmental concerns in the context of trade negotiations and regulations.
At the same time, Thailand’s widening trade surplus with the United States as exports have grown particularly in the latter months of 2020, a key bright spot in the country’s tentative recovery, make it a target for US officials.
On the other hand, other observers suggest that in terms of foreign policy and the Asia Pacific, we may see a more pragmatic approach which was the hallmark of the Obama years thus combining the two approaches.
Containing China will be a key objective
While the Biden Presidency promises to be more multilateral, it will still be focused, like its predecessor, on containing China especially in relation to Taiwan. This may mean a need to strengthen its relationship with key allies such as Thailand.
Prapee Apichatsakol is an Associate Professor at Srinakharinwirot University and the Vice President of the American Studies Association in Thailand.
Ms Prapee believes that the Biden White House will be open to forging closer ties with Thailand but the Thai government must also play its role.
‘If Mr Biden returns to policies similar to the Obama administration, which emphasised multilateralism and preserving human rights and the environment, coming back as the leader of the world with his ‘America is back’ slogan, he might need to quickly come and put things into order,’ she said. ‘It’s important to set our strategy well. We have to be careful in our relations with the US. We have to adjust. Democracy, human rights, intellectual property and labour, they will set high standards. Can we meet them?’
A balancing act in Washington and Bangkok
A positive outcome for both countries will require a political balancing act.
In Washington, an extremely vocal and powerful left wing of the Democratic Party may pressure the administration to focus on human rights in Thailand and the ongoing student protests while in Thailand, conservative forces have already become suspicious of the United States, even under Trump.
There is also the need for the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the government to balance its relationship between the two powers in the region, something Thailand has a lot of experience at even in far more demanding and tougher times than this.