Thailand has in recent years hedged its bets by using the 10-nation ASEAN community as a shield. However, lately, some of its key members including Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines have moved towards confronting Beijing and strengthening their military forces while also, in the case of the Philippines and Indonesia, resurrecting defensive military arrangements with the United States. Thailand is thought to be moving towards China’s camp but remains a US military partner, a key non-NATO ally in Southeast Asia and is seen as working closely with Japan.
A top US General at the Pentagon, in recent weeks, officially put his junior officers on notice that he believes the United States will go to war with China in 2025 over Taiwan. It comes as the geopolitical dynamics in Southeast Asia are rapidly shifting towards more pronounced fault lines with China leaving Thailand, with its fence-sitting foreign policy, exposed as even ASEAN countries are now putting it up to Beijing and siding with the United States over its belligerent claims in the South China Sea. Though once unthinkable, and for some hidebound commentators, nothing more than hysterical fear, a war in Asia is again a rising spectre and this may not just be a localised conflict if it breaks out leaving investors in Thailand and the wider region facing a highly uncertain world over the coming years.
A top US military commander at the Pentagon has forecast that China and the United States will engage in armed conflict in 2025.
The prediction by the head of Air Mobility Command at the US Defence Department, General Mike Minihan, came in a written memorandum which has been confirmed by US officials as authentic.
‘I hope I am wrong. My gut tells me we will fight in 2025,’ the top brass staffer said while also underlining that the United States should do everything possible to deter China from making a move on Taiwan but also to be prepared to defeat the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and airforce of the Communist Party led country.
Four-star US general wants his officers battle ready for the forthcoming military conflict with China
The purpose of the US general’s email to staff at the Pentagon was to urge them to make sure that American armed forces are battle ready should the call come for the White House to act.
General Minihan foresees the General Election in Taiwan in early 2024 as a key trigger point which could offer an already belligerent President Xi Jinping a pretext to ratchet up tensions and throw down the gauntlet to Taiwan, an independent state in the South China sea formerly known as Formosa which was annexed by the Qing dynasty in 1683 and ceded to the Japanese Empire in 1895.
It was occupied by Chinese nationalist forces in 1945 and the defeated nationalist government under Chiang Kai Shek moved there in 1948 before establishing Taipei as the capital of the Republic of China in 1949 after the Communist Party takeover in Beijing and mainland China.
The country lost its UN recognition in 1971 in favour of Beijing and in 1992, passed the Cross-Strait Act which attempted to legally codify its relationship with mainland China by recognising a relationship with the People’s Republic of China for the benefit of its people and those living in Hong Kong and Macau.
Taiwan since 1987 is a fully functioning democracy in Asia with an advanced and wealthy economy
Despite years of military government up to the 1980s, from 1987 and the lifting of decades of martial law, Taiwan emerged as a fully-fledged democratic country where citizens are growing increasingly assertive concerning the country’s separate identity from mainland China.
The country has a population of just less than 24 million but with a GDP in 2022 of $1.621 trillion and an income per capita of $69,500, it is a wealthy country with a reputation for business innovation, particularly in the technology sector.
It is acknowledged as a key player in semiconductor and chip manufacturing which is now at the heart of an increasingly bitter trade war between the United States and China.
The country’s newfound focus on its own identity has been reinforced by the behaviour of the People’s Republic of China towards Hong Kong and the communist country’s failure to live up to and adhere to the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, a treaty it signed with the United Kingdom promising a separate system of democratic governance after the former colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
General Minihan hopes he’s wrong but is confident that China and the United States will be engaged in a military conflict by 2025 because of Xi Jinping
In Washington DC last month, General Minihan was confident that hostilities will break out between the United States and China in 2025.
‘Xi’s team, reason, and opportunity are all aligned for 2025,’ the US military leader said referring to the new leadership of the Communist Party installed by President Xi Jinping after he cemented his near total grip on power at the recent Communist Party Congress where Xi promised delegates that unity with Taiwan would happen ‘without a doubt’ and approved a theme for the years ahead which emphasises putting the country on a war footing, something eerily akin the National Socialist government under Adolf Hitler in the years after 1936 leading up to World War Two when Germany prioritised its war economy over exports and world trade while speaking of territorial gains.
The memorandum issued to subordinates by the US four-star general called on them to take to the practice range with handguns and ‘fire a clip’ and instructed they should ‘aim for the head’ while doing so.
The Pentagon in Washington DC confirmed that the memo is genuine to the AFP News agency.
‘Yes, it’s factual that he sent it out,’ a spokesperson said.
America ratchets up its messaging on Taiwan towards China, it appears deliberately bolder and abrasive
The United States has become more robust about its relationship with Taiwan in the last 2 years despite an earlier perception that the Biden administration may have adopted a softer line to China than the Trump White House which raised the alarm over Chinese intentions towards Taiwan and redeployed US forces in the region to be able to respond to such an eventuality.
This has certainly not turned out to be the case as Biden’s policy on Asia has, as seen in the administration’s reaction to the war in Ukraine, been decisive and radical.
More assured Biden Presidency to test Bangkok as US-Chinese tensions expected to remain in play in Asia
Lowering of the US flag in Chengdu is a wake-up call for foreigners living in Thailand and with close ties here
The opposite has happened with the White House viewing Beijing through the same prism as Russia, as an authoritarian regime which cannot be appeased although Biden’s officials stress that they ultimately wish to avoid war with China.
Flight of former US house speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in August 2022 will go down in history as a seminal moment exposing China’s internal jingoism
The provocative visit to the self-governing island in August 2022 by former House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi rapidly ratcheted up tensions and could well turn out to have been a seminal moment.
The visit shocked not only Chinese officials but also left moderate European commentators aghast at the deteriorating situation and the very real possibility of war given renewed western determination and resolve after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Chinese internal politics which have grown more nationalistic and belligerent.
The landing of Ms Pelosi’s flight was greeted with calls for war from the Chinese masses who avidly followed the flight of her plane online after an earlier visit to Singapore and Malaysia.
Pelosi defies Communist China’s concerted campaign of intimidation and visits Taiwan sparking a crisis
This was followed by heavy Chinese war drills and manoeuvres closer to the island than before and what US naval intelligence discerned as a simulated operation at sea to embargo Taiwan, a key fear of military strategists.
The crisis was further spiked by comments by US President Biden in which he clearly stated the US will use military means to defend the island although each time his statement was clarified by aides to keep it in line with America’s policy of strategic ambiguity which is now quite frayed and coming under fire from key thinkers.
Danger posed by the ongoing war in Ukraine with Russia’s economy intact and a planned new offensive
At the same time, US national security sources are openly briefing that the US response to the war in Ukraine and Russia’s ultimate plight is what might happen to China if it attacks Taiwan.
In this respect, the failure of US sanctions to completely collapse the Russian economy and Putin’s ongoing resolve in Ukraine, with a new offensive in the pipeline, ratchets up the stakes when it comes to his policy and is increasing the chances of a war in Asia.
Nevertheless, this is what the Chinese leadership has promised to do while engaging in more belligerent and provocative rhetoric.
The precarious nature of global geopolitics has been highlighted to the Thai government at home by industry leaders such as Kriengkrai Thiennukul, the Chairman of the Federation of Thai Industries (FTI), as a key threat to Thailand’s economic prospects in 2023.
US worried Thailand has drifted close to Beijing
It is reported that the United States is increasingly concerned about the role of Thailand should a crisis or even hostilities break out between China and the United States.
Even though the kingdom is an American ally cemented by a treaty as the US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin reminded his audience on a visit to Bangkok in June 2022, it has, in recent years, been seen as close to Beijing.
The fear is that the current government led by General Prayut Chan ocha, who led the 2014 coup, has developed closer ties to China including enhanced military cooperation and the purchase of defence technology from the communist state while its cooperation with the United States has declined or is a paltry reflection of what it once was despite the rhetoric.
Decision on Thai Navy’s $400 million submarine
A key indicator of how things may develop is a decision which is due soon on a controversial $400 million submarine from China which ran into difficulties after a German engine manufacturer of renowned MTU 12V 396 SE84 engines refused to supply the contract-specified diesel engines with a delegation from the Royal Thai Navy currently in the Chinese city of Wuhan until early March to supervise tests of a Chinese made replacement which has been fitted to a Chinese submarine.
Former US Department of Defence official and a senior analyst with the Rand Corporation, Lyle Morris, thinks Thailand has begun to enter China’s camp but, at the same time, he feels the kingdom may still be wavering.
‘The recipe is there, all of the ingredients are there,’ explained Mr Morris. ‘They’ve already invested in a lot of the defence industrial base with the subs and more arms being sold from China to Thailand. That’s how it starts. It’s building the relationships of the defence industrial base and having systems that are more amenable to China than to the US.’
‘I don’t think Thailand is lost yet, but they definitely need some love,’ he concludes.
As regards the submarine contract, sources in Bangkok have attributed the reluctance of the Royal Thai Navy to jettison the submarine contract to a cultural Thai issue called ‘Kreng Jai’ where Thais do not like causing other parties, particularly honoured parties such as China’s leadership, to lose face.
Thailand’s close ties with Japan, in 2022, it signed a defence technology pact with the other US ally
Thailand has also been seen as close to Japan which is emerging as a key player in the American-led alliance to counter China in the Indo-Pacific in what Washington and the Biden administration views as not just a military alliance but the most effective deterrent to Chinese aggression.
The kingdom, in May 2022, signed a defence technology pact with Japan during a visit by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to Bangkok.
Concerning the upcoming General Election in Thailand, it is clear that a Pheu Thai government as opposed to the current coalition government would be more committed to democracy and democratic principles.
Given China’s declining economic performance since the pandemic and its rollback of human rights under President Xi Jinping as well as rising tensions and fault lines that no longer can be ignored, then a new government in Thailand committed to democratic principles, may shift the balance away from China although Thailand will always play its traditional foreign policy card which is sitting on the fence.
In recent years, this has proved more uncomfortable and led it to promote foreign ties and diplomacy through the 10-member ASEAN community.
Return of General Prayut to power after the Thai General Election in May will be viewed as a move towards closer ties with China by western analysts
However, Tyerl Haberkorn of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a professor of Southeast Asian studies believes that if General Prayut Chan ocha, the current PM, remains in power, then Thailand may well lean further towards China.
‘If the Prayut government remains in power, greater authoritarianism and a further lean towards China are very likely,’ reveals Mr Haberkorn, ‘Already, under the current semi-democratic, semi-authoritarian regime, there have been sustained attacks on human rights and freedoms.’
Nevertheless, Thailand remains a major non-Nato ally in Southeast Asia, a designation it received in 2003. Its armed forces retain strong links with the US military.
It is also significant that General Prayut went out of his way to express the need for stronger US Asean ties at the US Asean summit in Cambodia last November when he met the US President for the second time in 2022.
ASEAN community in Southeast Asia pressurised by rising US-Chinese tensions with disputes between member nations and Beijing over the South China Sea
In the meantime, ASEAN itself is feeling the heat from US-Chinese tensions and perplexing Chinese activities in the South China Sea.
The Philippines has recently reversed a 30-year trend by granting the United States additional rights to new bases in the country which is being openly acknowledged as a move to support its ability to defend itself against China if hostilities break out in that area.
The move, earlier in February, was announced during a visit by Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin to the country and the new US bases were described as temporary, in itself, indicating a short timespan and pending crisis.
‘By itself, the Philippines cannot stand up to China so it does need the assistance of the United States,’ explained Kenneth Faulve-Montojo, an expert on the Philippines at Santa Clara University in California. ‘So from the US and the Philippine perspective, it appears to be a win, win situation.’
The development comes also as both Indonesia and Vietnam, key partners of Thailand in ASEAN, are urgently reappraising their defence strategies in the light of a more belligerent and assertive China when it comes to the South China Sea.
Indonesia’s President takes a principled stand against China after it ordered countries to drop South China Sea claims. $3 billion drilling project continues
Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo has just announced a $197 billion budget to expand his country’s military and is going head to head with China over a disputed part of the South China Sea as it works through ASEAN to seek an agreement on the basis of international principles and the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which Beijing has rejected or simply ignores.
China is demanding that Jakarta along with the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and of course Taiwan, concede that they have no territorial rights in the South China Sea which it considers wholly its own.
China was incensed earlier this month when Vietnam and Indonesia reached a bilateral agreement linked to one area of the sea which both countries claim as part of their exclusive economic zones.
Both countries have plans for the area with Indonesia commencing drilling operations looking for oil and gas in a $3.07 billion operation near the Tuna Bock in 2021.
The Indonesian government believes reserves in the area which it claims as part of its economic zone could be worth up to $500 billion.
Indonesia deployed its own warships to the disputed seas near the Natuna Islands despite the trade between it and China as it ramps up military spending
This resulted in a standoff when China sent a coast guard ship to the area near Indonesia’s Natuna Islands only to be met with a forceful response.
President Joko Widodo held fast to his principles despite China being Indonesia’s largest trade partner with an estimated $208 billion in trade between the two countries.
Indonesia deployed warships to confront the Chinese and insisted that the drilling operations, which are being conducted now jointly with the Vietnamese, go ahead.
The United States, which has been seeking strong ties with ASEAN, has encouraged the 10-nation bloc to stand its ground against China based on international law and has promised its support.
A dangerous situation with battle lines being drawn up in the Indo Pacific with the potential flashpoints, for now, being Taiwan and the South China Sea
With Australia rapidly rearming its defence forces and Japan turning its back on its pacifist constitution having joined the QUAD pact with India, the United States and Australia and the return of UK defence forces through the Royal Navy to the Asia Pacific theatre via Singapore under the new AUKUS pact, it is very clear the battle lines are being drawn.
The potential flashpoints are, for now, the South China Sea and Taiwan.
The question is whether matters can be diffused through diplomacy, whether a new cold war between the two opposing blocs will develop or whether we are on the verge of a full-blown war in the region, nothing less than a world war given the deteriorating situation in Europe after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The parallels between the current situation and the years leading up to World War Two are both compelling and disturbing with Russia and China replacing Germany and Japan as the anti-democratic forces.
Preparations for war linked to a huge propaganda and cultural war that is being waged worldwide across different regions of the world and age groups
The issue for investors in Thailand and Southeast Asia and most especially expats and frequent visitors to Thailand is one that must be studied and a calculation made.
Many experts including former US intelligence operatives are pointing to the next election in the United States as a period when the world’s leading power may be vulnerable, coming approximately six months after the General Election in Taiwan.
As we have seen this week with multiple intrusions into US airspace from balloons and unidentified flying objects, this threat is rising and its proponents are becoming bolder.
Added to this, the decades-long cyber war that has been waged by a special division of the Chinese police and armed forces near Beijing on western cyber and communications infrastructure as well as similar activities from Russia, and we can see the preparation for such an eventuality has been long in the making.
War threat about either US world hegemony or living the American dream depending on which side you are looking from, soon you may have to choose
The war, if it comes, will be about the role of the United States and its dominance over the world economy which its supporters say has been used benignly and constructively to support a democratic world with a commitment to human rights and better lifestyles worldwide, the American dream which many young people in Thailand, Myanmar, Taiwan and Hong Kong believe in.
China and Russia, through extensive propaganda networks, have targeted more middle-aged people in Thailand and across the world with a mixture of anti-American rhetoric, more traditional attitudes with nationalistic fervour and conspiracy theories to win those country’s friends.
They have also exacerbated divisions among the populations and population subsets in democratic countries where a culture war between the right and the left was already raging in its own right and will continue to do so.
The message from Russia and China, which resonates with some, is that these are countries that should be free to pursue their own political beliefs and systems while also maintaining their exclusive areas or orbits of influence as befits first-class world powers.
For Russia, this means Ukraine, Belarus, Moldavia and other states on its borders while for China, it means Hong Kong, Taiwan and Southeast Asia which includes Cambodia and Thailand.