Western powers are moving to counter China’s expansionism in the region with the Quad pact in 2017 and the AUKUS military alliance between the United States, United Kingdom and Australia in September last year which is seen as a significant escalation of efforts to address the threat the Communist Party-led country poses to stability in the Indo Pacific. In past decades, Thailand was at the forefront of such efforts as a key US ally. The question today is the role Thailand will play in this new cold war between an even more powerful China and an increasingly assertive and bolder United States determined to re-establish its position in the region in what it sees as an effort to preserve peace but which China views as a last gasp attempt to reimpose American hegemony and old fashioned colonialism over a part of the world that wants to go its own way towards a new era of Asian prosperity and leadership.
An announcement of a defence pact between Thailand and Japan on Monday is being seen as a step by the kingdom towards the growing western alliance in the Indo Pacific to counter China’s dominance. The move comes ahead of the US ASEAN Summit in Washington DC in the middle of May and moves which are afoot to create a robust western military alliance to counter China across Asia that may, at some stage, involve the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) or a similar organisation.
Thailand, on Monday, announced a defence pact with Japan during a visit to Bangkok by newly installed Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. Mr Kishida took office in Japan last October.
The move may signal a change in tack for Thailand as it finds itself increasingly under pressure as tensions in Southeast Asia and throughout the Indo Pacific rise due to what is now already a very dangerous cold war between the United States supported by western and regional allies and China.
Move being seen as a move by Thailand toward a growing western military alliance in the Indo Pacific
The move is being interpreted as a circuitous move by Thailand bringing it somewhat closer to the orbit of the United States even though the kingdom has a long-standing military alliance with the world superpower already.
The deal will deepen military cooperation between the two countries and allows for the transfer of defence equipment and technology from Japan to Thailand.
Japan is part of the Quad, a defensive alliance in this new era between Australia, India, the United States and Japan.
Indeed the Quad is an initiative that was created by former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on a visit to India in 2017.
Tensions between Japan and China have also been rising in recent times although both countries, traditional enemies, have very close business and trade ties.
China has increased its maritime presence in Japanese waters in particular near the Senkaku islands which are uninhabited but under Japanese control.
The islands are disputed between Japan, Taiwan and China.
Japan, in recent years, has seen increasing public support for a larger military despite its modern constitution which emphasises neutrality and peace.
Article 9 of the 1947 Japanese constitution outlaws war as a means of settling international disputes.
The reason for this is the increasingly threatening posture of China’s military build-up, particularly at sea which seems only to have begun.
Japan warned by Moscow in recent days over military drills at sea with the US Navy near Russian territory
Japan is also a traditional foe of Russia which, in recent days, has warned the country over stepped-up military exercises at sea with the US Navy near Russia’s eastern territories.
US and UK battleships move to the Indo Pacific as part of a new regional security alliance and deterrent being formed between Western and Asian players
The move comes just weeks before Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha is scheduled to attend the ASEAN US summit in Washington DC, an event that the kingdom has been seen to be ambivalent about after it was cancelled in March this year by the Cambodian chair of ASEAN with confirmation that the Prime Minister, Prayut Chan ocha would be attending the rescheduled event only coming on April 20th last when Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai confirmed that the government leader would attend.
Days before this, the Thai PM had joked with reporters that he was not sure whether he had been invited or not.
Mixed signals: Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai met his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in April
The delayed confirmation that Thailand would be present at the summit came after the Thai Foreign Minister Mr Don, himself, visited China on April 2nd in a visit that was highlighted by the Chinese Foreign Ministry as showing that cordial relations existed between China and its ASEAN partners after four foreign ministers from Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar met the Chinese Foreign Minister Wáng Yì between March 31st and April 3rd while the US ASEAN event was still not yet confirmed due to ‘scheduling’ issues.
The meetings were portrayed by Chinese media as a snub to the United States.
US President Biden and his advisors have made it no secret that the reason for the summit was not primarily, as suggested by the Cambodian Foreign Ministry, an event to celebrate ASEAN US ties but a key opportunity to discuss the threat posed by China and the determination of the United States to keep the region ‘free and open’ while strengthening US engagement in all respects from defensive and security measures to economic co-operation.
Chinese Foreign Ministry gloated at the impromptu gathering after the first US ASEAN summit was axed
Speaking at the time about the visit by the four ASEAN foreign ministers to the communist country at the end of March and the beginning of April just after the proposed US ASEAN summit originally scheduled for March 28th and March 29th was cancelled, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs gloatingly described the four countries as ‘important ASEAN members and China’s friendly neighbours and important partners for high-quality Belt and Road cooperation.’
Significantly, Myanmar’s junta leadership is not being invited to the US ASEAN Summit during the month because of the country’s subversion of democracy after the 2020 coup while outgoing Philippines President Roger Duterte will not attend having never visited Washington during his six-year tenure as the leader of the Philippines and his administration’s policy of stronger ties with Beijing.
His likely replacement will be Ferdinand Marcos junior who is seeking office with Mr Duterte’s daughter, 43-year-old Sara Duterte-Carpio as his running mate.
Foreign policy observers suggest that Mr Marcos is likely to bring the Philippines even closer to China despite territorial disputes between the two countries. The Philippines was a US colony until 1946.
New strong US foreign policy being pursued underlining respect for human rights, the rule of law and democratic values as well as economic gain
This comes as the United States, in the wake of the war in Ukraine has doubled down on the importance of respect for the rule of law, human rights and what it terms democratic norms as essential principles for cooperation and developing relationships with other countries.
It is a theme that has also been taken up strongly by the government of the United Kingdom and on even more strident terms, by its Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.
Both Thailand and Japan are military allies of the United States since the 1950s although since the coups in Thailand in 2006 and 2014, Thailand’s military began to purchase more arms and equipment from China while also increasing cooperation between Thailand’s armed forces and China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
Thailand’s original defence pact with the United States began with an Asian version of NATO which operated from 1955 until 1977 based in Bangkok
Japan’s defensive pact with the United States dates back to the US-Japan Security Treaty of 1952 while Thailand’s stems from the Manila Pact of 1954 leading to the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) which was based in Bangkok until 1977.
Asian NATO from 1955 to 1977 was headquartered in Bangkok and initially led by a Thai diplomat and PM
As recently as 2020 Thailand and the United States signed the 2020 Joint Vision Statement for the Thai-US Defence Alliance which endorses cooperation between Thailand and the United States on security toward a more peaceful Indo Pacific region.
AUKUS military alliance agreed in September 2021 was a wake-up call for Thailand and other ASEAN countries
However, events in Ukraine and the threat posed by China are prompting the West to seek more iron-clad defensive pacts among nations in the region against China with the prospect of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) extending its tentacles into the region not being ruled out.
AUKUS pact a groundbreaker last year as problems arose with Thailand’s neighbours to the East and West
The announcement of a military alliance between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States last year was a strong signal to ASEAN countries that the stakes are being raised in the region as is the participation of South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand at recent North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) meetings.
Rising tensions between the United States and Cambodia as Hun Sen’s army signs a pact with China’s People’s Liberation Army at the end of March
In Thailand’s case it should be noted that its neighbour to the west, Myanmar is now dominated by China’s influence and is increasingly dependent on the Chinese Communist Party both for military supplies and economic support as it fights an increasingly bloody civil war with its own population.
To Thailand’s east, Cambodia has recently signed a mutual defence pact and memorandum of understanding with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) while that kingdom’s relations with the United States have deteriorated due to its clandestine efforts to allow access by the Chinese military to its bases and facilities including Ream Naval Base on the Gulf of Thailand.
China counters that the West’s moves hearken back to a long-gone colonial era that no longer exists
China has been scathing about the creation of military alliances between western powers focused on the Indo Pacific and has increasingly described the moves as the attempted reimposition of former colonial arrangements.
Beijing argues that its rise is based on stronger economic cooperation but its increasingly ambitious foreign policy, naval buildup and its recent move to create a security pact with the Solomon Islands have raised disturbing questions about its intent.
Even the stated raison d’être for the Solomon Islands pact raises further questions concerning the nature of Chinese economic cooperation with other countries which has seen large numbers of Chinese nationals settle in targeted countries across the world including for instance in Cambodia and of course, Myanmar where Chinese business interests were targeted and burnt last year by an angry population taking part in the national uprising prompting Beijing to warn of potential drastic action being required by it.
Thai PM welcomed not only the defensive pact but a new 5-year plan for deeper economic ties with Japan
Speaking on Monday, after the announcement of the new defensive pact between Japan and Thailand as well as the start of work on a new 5-year plan for deeper economic cooperation, Thai Prime Minister General Prayut said the pact addressed Thailand’s key needs at this time which he identified as security and inward investment.
‘This will help improve national defence and support investment from Japan in this activity which is an important goal for Thailand,’ said the Thai premier alongside Prime Minister Fumio Kishida who also visited Indonesia and Vietnam on this trip.
The Thai PM acknowledged Japan as the largest inward investor in the kingdom since it began its transition to an industrial economy in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Stronger supply chains and inward investment
The Thai leader said his talks on Monday with Mr Kishida had touched on issues such as improving supply chains and drafting a five-year plan between the two Asian countries.
The PM also emphasised the key role played by Japan in nurturing development through Southeast Asian countries over the decades through its leading firms, some of which are the biggest names in the world.
At the end of April, a high powered Thai delegation visited Tokyo and Kanagawa in Japan led by Deputy Prime Minister and Energy Minister Supattanapong Punmeechaow to promote investment in Thailand from Japanese firms in particular in the manufacture of electric-powered vehicles
Significantly, a spokesperson at Government House also disclosed that Mr Supattanapong will lead similar delegations of this type to the United States, Europe and South Korea.
Japan is Asia’s only member of the G7 group of nations which includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States with the European Union also acting as an ex officio member.
Comments by the Japanese PM show that geopolitics was at play at Monday’s announcement in Bangkok
On Monday, it was clear that geopolitics was never far from the agenda as the Japanese PM thanked Thailand for voting to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24th last at an Extraordinary General Assembly meeting called in response to the crisis in early March.
However, since then, Thailand has maintained a more neutral stance by failing to impose sanctions on Russia and by abstaining in a recent vote condemning the atrocities committed by Russian forces in the town of Bucha, just outside the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.
Singapore is the only ASEAN country to impose strong sanctions on Russia although it joined Thailand on the vote concerning atrocities committed by Russian forces in the war-torn country in abstaining.
Mr Kishida specifically raised the issue of Ukraine on Monday when he said: ‘I agreed with Prime Minister Prayut that in any region the violation of sovereignty and territorial integrity, or unilateral changes to the status quo with force, should not be tolerated.’
After Monday’s announcement, it also emerged that Japan would be contributing ¥50 billion or ฿13 billion towards the kingdom’s efforts to contain the recent pandemic.
This was confirmed by Mr Noriyuki Shikata, the Japanese Cabinet Secretary for Public Affairs.