Lloyd Austin, a career soldier who began work as a US Army lieutenant in the 1970s, cut an impressive figure in Bangkok this week after going head to head with Chinese Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe in Singapore where the Chinese military leader warned that China’s rise in Asia was assured and unstoppable while the communists country would ‘crush’ any attempt by the island of Taiwan to declare independence.
Thailand moved on Thursday to reaffirm its own ‘strategic ambiguity’ amid fast-rising tensions between the United States and China which were laid bare last weekend during an intergovernmental dialogue in Singapore and following a visit to Bangkok by US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin who reminded reporters at a press conference that Thailand is a confirmed military ally of the United States which is working with Washington to modernise its defence forces.
Thailand, through National Security Council (NSC) Secretary-general, General Supot Malaniyom, has again reaffirmed its neutral stance concerning current world conflicts and more pertinently, the growing rivalry in the Indo-Pacific between the United States and China.
This follows a significant visit this week by Lloyd Austin, the US Secretary of Defence, where he met Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha.
The visit was accompanied by a free and open press conference in which the senior US government official, responding to questions, affirmed Thailand as a key ally of the United States in military terms concerning the increasingly tense Asia Pacific standoff between Beijing and Washington.
The US Defence chief was being questioned by reporters for the Thai news channel Thai PBS about US efforts to counter a rising threat from China in the Indo Pacific and growing acts of hostility in the South China Sea from Chinese forces.
US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin reminds reporters that Thailand is a military ally of the United States when questioned about Chinese aggression
‘I would remind you that, you know, Thailand is an ally of the United States,’ Mr Austin shot back in a response that will not have gone down well in Beijing, among anti-US activists in Thailand and indeed within the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs where efforts are made assiduously to bolster Thailand’s perceived neutrality in world affairs cloaked in phrases that emphasise dialogue in conjunction with diplomacy relating to disputes, humanitarian assistance and a coordinated consensus among ASEAN partners.
This was exactly the line that the Secretary-general of the National Security Council General Supot Malaniyom took on Thursday when he struck all those bases.
General Supot referred to ongoing world conflicts which he conceded were severely impacting Thailand as well.
He stated that Thailand supports efforts to find a peaceful resolution to such disputes and provide humanitarian assistance while it was also working closely with its ASEAN partners.
Reaffirmed position of neutrality on Thursday may not be enough as friction grows between the powers
However, this rhetoric and position may soon not be enough as tensions continue to rise between the United States supported by western powers and Communist China over the latter’s more aggressive posture on the South China Seas and Taiwan.
US intelligence chiefs increasingly believe that China is likely to launch a military intervention in connection with the de facto island state either through an invasion or, as some experts suggest, a blockade at some point over the coming decade or even the next five years.
US Defence Chief arrived in Bangkok after attending an at times heated Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore
Secretary Austin was in Thailand this week after coming from the Shangri-La Dialogue, a high-level and increasingly significant inter-governmental security conference where the American Defence chief locked horns with his Chinese counterpart, 68-year-old General Wei Fenghe, who made some pointed pronouncements at the event organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies and which finished up last weekend.
The Chinese Defence Chief deployed a combative tone at the conference even though he spoke calmly.
He told the assembled guests bluntly that China’s rise in Asia was now assured and that no power could stop it.
The Chinese Defence Minister assured his audience that China would ‘crush’ any effort by Taiwan to make a move towards independence while warning that if confronted, China would unflinchingly fight to the end.
At the same time, General Wei reiterated China’s commitment to peaceful reunification with Taiwan saying the Communist Party-ruled state in Beijing, founded in 1949, was still ready for a ‘sound, steady development’ of relationships with the United States.
Defence Minister talked up China’s economy
The senior Chinese official told his audience that China’s handling of the virus emergency was ‘stellar’ while also insisting that its economic position continued to rise.
Both of these statements are being called into question by international economic agencies and banks as well as plummeting consumer confidence levels in China.
However, it is also coming with rapidly rising interest rates in the United States which threaten to drive its economy into recession while also sucking capital out of Asia to the West.
US to unveil new economic relations framework for Asia at ASEAN Summit as China warns of new cold war
General Wei outlined a range of grievances that China has with the current state of affairs in Asia and the policies of the United States since 2017.
Beijing’s opposition to ‘exclusive blocs’ or military alliances against it is now a key theme or message
He was particularly adamant in warning against what he termed ‘exclusive blocs’ such as the new AUKUS military alliance between the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom and the growing development of the Quad initiative which is increasingly taking on military overtones.
This involves Japan, Australia, India and the United States.
This has now become a refrain in Chinese statements with growing evidence that the United States and Australia are building a military network in the Indo Pacific which may even, at some point, have links with the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) with key Asian countries such as South Korea and Japan already participating in North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) briefings, particularly since the outbreak of the ongoing war in Ukraine.
While Thailand is a confirmed US military ally, it has also recently signed a defence cooperation pact with Japan which is increasingly asserting its role in the Indo-Pacific as a military player, something which represents a new departure for that nation in the modern era.
However, Thailand’s armed forces have also regularly engaged in drills and manoeuvres with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and over the previous decades, the country has developed close economic links with its northern neighbour.
Thailand’s relationship with China changing
There have been some signs of change however in the kingdom’s relationship with China as more international and US firms move out of the communist country and begin looking to Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand while signature efforts of Thai Chinese co-operation such as a high spend rail link and the purchase of submarines manufactured in China hitting hit roadblocks, languishing or making very little progress.
The impact of Chinese development on its neighbouring countries Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar may also have given Thai authorities reason to be circumspect.
New QUAD shipping initiative using satellites shows the growing power of a potential military alliance
Over the last week, in a signal to the QUAD’s potential as a military and security force, detailed plans have been unveiled to use satellite networks to track ‘black shipping’ in the Pacific which involves ships with transponders turned off.
Many of these vessels are thought to be driven by activity linked to North Korea and China in the pursuit of under-the-radar operations that have been ongoing for decades and which serve to undermine security and the force of law in the region.
All this, of course, has been vigorously denied by Beijing.
General Wei’s speech theme, in Singapore last weekend, was that China cannot be restricted or encircled and that it would resist such efforts.
The international meeting last weekend left no one in any doubt that the Indo-Pacific is now facing a rising security challenge with an array of potential conflicts and issues as well as two world superpowers with two different visions.
The situation is unprecedented and it means that decades of a mutually cooperative status quo have now finished unless one side backs down or is forced to back down.
China’s warning to the region about US interference strikes a chord and is amplified by its propaganda
An aide to General Wei, while speaking at the conference in Singapore, took a swipe at the United States: ‘The United States has already turned the Middle East and Europe into a mess, does it want to mess up the Asia-Pacific next?’
It is a position that is continuously amplified by Chinese propaganda which has been pouring out over the last five years in the region through a network of news agencies and a growing number of Chinese state-sponsored news outlets reaching international audiences.
It is a message that plays very well not only with ordinary Asian people but also to non-aligned countries and even western foreigners who have grown up in an era and culture that is anti-American.
Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin cut an impressive figure this week as he spelt out a new US vision
Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, a black American who started as a Lieutenant in the 1970s, cut an impressive figure this week both at the Shangri-ladialogue and during his visit to Bangkok where he met Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha.
His message was clear, measured and precise.
He told audiences that America views the Indo-Pacific as pivotal to its worldwide interests in the 21st century.
He reminded his audience in Singapore that his country remains the world’s leading military power and in later remarks, suggested that his department was determined to maintain this situation with cutting-edge technology which is producing a new range of military weapons such as unmanned craft, stealth aircraft, long-range fire capability and sophisticated intelligence systems.
He outlined how America was now developing close defence industry relationships with its key partners and was working to improve supply chains and interchangeability across this extended military network.
He said the United States was confident of maintaining its role as the world’s leading military superpower through stronger and more effective partnerships with its key allies.
Mission of the United States is one of peace and stability but this means acting now to counter China
He insisted, however, that the United States was primarily on a mission to maintain peace and stability but said that this meant confronting increased aggression from China which he accused of openly pushing the envelope in the region with its provocative behaviour.
He also said the United States did not oppose other countries in the Indo-Pacific or Asia working with China to pursue their own interests.
He defined the role of the United States as helping to support all countries in the region to protect their interests against what US Intelligence services see as a clear and rising threat from Communist China.
US working with Thailand to modernise the kingdom’s military so it can protect its regional interests
On his visit to Bangkok this week, he held to this theme when he told an audience of reporters from national and international news channels who were free to ask him questions, that the United States Defence Department was looking forward to working with Thailand to help modernise the kingdom’s military.
‘Now, you heard me talk in my speech about the power of partnerships, and that’s what we’re here in Thailand to reinforce with our long-standing allies. We’ve had the opportunity to discuss the modernisation of the Thai military, and we’re working to enhance Thailand’s ability to protect its security interests. We also discussed our emerging cooperation in new domains such as space and cyberspace,’ Secretary Austin explained.
Mr Austin, nonetheless, still insisted that US policy over Taiwan or the One China principle has not changed including its position of ‘strategic ambiguity’ regarding the defence of the self-ruling island.
He did, however, say that the United States was increasingly concerned about Beijing’s actions towards Taiwan and its behaviour in the South China Sea where there have been recent confrontations between Chinese naval forces and vessels flying the flag of the Philippines within waters which Manila claims sovereignty over.
Thailand reasserts its own ‘strategic ambiguity’
There is also rising alarm over some recent Chinese statements concerning the use of international waters near Taiwan which threaten the status quo.
The White House has described Beijing’s recent behaviour in the waters as ‘coercive and aggressive’ while officials from both countries have opened up communications channels as the seriousness of the situation grows.
Secretary Austin said that America did not seek conflict but would never shy away from ‘honest competition’ and identified the need for countries, as a matter of priority, to make their voice heard against the potential for instability being caused by China’s actions in the South China Sea.