PM Srettha warns of military conflict at the Asean-Japan Summit on Sunday. Thailand maintains its delicate balancing act while forging closer ties with Japan as South China Sea disputes escalate.

Prime Minister Srettha Thavin appeared uncomfortable on Sunday when the Asean-Japan Summit discussed the South China Sea issue. The thorny problem is gradually coming to the fore at regional discussions at Indo-Pacific gatherings. The Thai PM appealed for care and caution and warned against potential hostilities. 

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin enjoyed a successful visit to the ASEAN Japan Summit in Tokyo over the weekend. However, on Sunday, he warned that military conflict could erupt with China over contentious issues, including the South China Sea and Taiwan. He pointed out the danger to world trade and the safety of 60,000 Thai nationals on the island.

The recently concluded Asean-Japan Summit saw Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin walk a diplomatic tightrope. While emphasising successful engagement and close ties with Japan and being forced to at least address escalating conflicts over South China Sea disputes. The issue arose for discussion in Tokyo on Sunday.

At length, the summit served as a stark reminder for Thailand. That its neutral stance in an increasingly divided world between China and the United States faces challenges.

Escalating conflicts over the South China Sea: a diplomatic quandary for Thailand as it seeks to maintain its position on the fence from within ASEAN

In a bolder departure but within Thailand’s traditionally neutral stance, Prime Minister Srettha issued a warning on Sunday. The PM raised the danger of escalating tensions with China over the South China Sea during the summit in Japan. He called for acute sensitivity. 

Srettha cited potential disruptions to the world’s maritime transport system. He also expressed concerns for the safety of 60,000 Thai workers in Taiwan.

‘If any problem occurs, it can disrupt the maritime transport system there. There are also about 60,000 Thai workers in Taiwan, so we don’t want the conflict there to get out of hand,’ Prime Minister Srettha declared.

Diplomatic niceties for the Kingdom are being tested as world divisions grow and are spreading within Asia among the countries of ASEAN and East Asia

While the Thai government went out of its way to strengthen ties with Japan, a critical economic partner, the escalating disputes over the South China Sea underscore Thailand’s diplomatic dilemma. 

The Kingdom’s reliance on China for economic growth over the past three decades has complicated its position, leaving its diplomatic standing exposed. Japan is now firmly a US ally and is, for the first time since World War Two, rearming. 

It is part of the Quad Alliance. This includes the United States, India and Australia which aims to counter China’s military expansion. That military expansionism takes the form of extensive claims to the South China Sea.

Beijing’s more assertive tenor and its continued military buildup aimed at the South China Sea puts Thailand’s diplomacy progressively in a tough spot

The growing tensions over the South China Sea disputes are exacerbated by Beijing’s assertive stance and military buildup. It poses a challenge to Thailand’s longstanding policy of avoiding friction with China.

As ASEAN members, particularly the Philippines, turn to the United States and Japan as key allies, Thailand finds itself conflicted. Whether to take sides despite repeated assurances from US diplomats that such a choice will not be required.

The ASEAN-Japan Summit in Tokyo provided a platform for Prime Minister Srettha to navigate these challenges delicately. Thailand sought to reaffirm its friendship with Japan, a crucial investor and contributor to the country’s manufacturing sector, particularly in automobile production.

However, behind diplomatic smiles, Thailand struggles with the growing diplomatic pressure as tensions rise between key ASEAN members and China.

China refuses to accept international court rulings

At the same time, China’s claims over the South China Sea clash with international court rulings. This in turn stirs regional tensions. The kingdom’s historical alignment with Cambodia, a known Chinese proxy, is becoming more evident.

The emerging reality, an uncomfortable one, is that Thailand may no longer be able to maintain its neutral stance. It now faces continuing shifting geopolitical dynamics moving towards division.

Thailand’s concern over South China Sea disputes at the ASEAN-Japan Summit saw PM Srettha, serving as an ASEAN coordinator, urge caution. He emphasised the need to be careful for fear of potential problems with Beijing.

‘Thailand respects the independence of every country and it needs to tread carefully to avoid any problem,’ Prime Minister Srettha stated.

South China Sea issue to the fore at regional summits in the Pacific as sides are also being taken with many of Thailand’s allies now opposing China  

The South China Sea issue is becoming a contentious focal point at regional summits, with Japan and Asean leaders. Regional leaders are committed to strengthening security cooperation, including maritime security.

The final statement highlighted the need for a rules-based Indo-Pacific region, peaceful dispute settlement, and respect for territorial integrity.

South China Sea disputes have been a persistent challenge for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) since the end of the Cold War.

The strategic significance of the region as a sea line of communication, rich in natural resources, has made it a hotspot for competing territorial claims.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1982 laid down rules for the exploration of resources, freedom of navigation, territorial rights, and dispute resolution. While some ASEAN members are claimants in the South China Sea disputes, others play a more neutral role.

Thailand has no South China Sea claims or disputes with Beijing. It maintains a conciliatory stance. It is a position that suits China within ASEAN

Vietnam: Vietnam, a significant claimant, has a history of tension with China over the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Vietnam’s approach involves leaning towards internationalisation and seeking support from various organisations and countries to dilute Chinese power.

Philippines: The Philippines, directly impacted by China’s military expansion, has been pressing for a Code of Conduct within ASEAN. It seeks outside support, exemplified by filing complaints in the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague.

Malaysia: Malaysia, with territorial claims in the SCS, maintains a cautious approach. It avoids public criticism of China. Kuala Lumpur emphasises economic benefits but continues to modernise its military forces.

Meanwhile, Thailand underlines its strong economic ties with China. It has no claims in the South China Sea. It therefore refrains from blaming China for heightened tensions. This along with Cambodia’s supportive stance allows China more scope when dealing with the Asean bloc.

Singapore, another Asean member, also seeks to downplay tension and conflict with China.

Thailand does, however, have an ongoing maritime dispute with Cambodia, a country drawing closer to China including strong naval and military cooperation

At the same time, Thailand does have a long-standing maritime dispute with Cambodia.

This goes way back to the 1907 Franco-Siamese Treaty of 1907. It prevents active development of a 27,000 square kilometre disputed area in the Gulf of Thailand.

The area is rich in gas and oil reserves.

In October, Minister of Energy Pirapan Salirathavibhaga postponed talks over the maritime dispute. This was to allow wider development talks to proceed. This indicates a deep-seated problem.

The two countries have made little progress in resolving the matter despite a 2001 Memorandum of Understanding. In January 2023, talks were agreed but have so far yielded no progress.

In the last week, politicians in Thailand have raised the issue of the maritime dispute between Thailand and Cambodia.

Chinese ships sail into Ream naval base near Sihanoukville

At the same time, Cambodia is increasingly engaged with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy. Last week, Chinese warships sailed into a re-developed Ream naval base near Sihanoukville and on the Gulf of Thailand.

China’s Navy sails into Ream Naval Base in Cambodia with Thailand’s neighbour now seen as a proxy for Beijing

At the Asean Japan Summit in Tokyo however, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin hailed Thailand’s friendship with Cambodia. 

He invited Prime Minister Hun Manet to Bangkok in February 2024. This is for talks on industrial cooperation and the use of Thailand’s deep water port facilities in Eastern Thailand.

Cambodia is a pseudo-dictatorship ruled by one family for the last 40 years. It has come about with rising cooperation and financial support from China

Cambodia is, at the same time, seen as a democracy in name only.

It is, like North Korea, ruled by the family of Hun Sen, Hun Manet’s father. He is considered a pseudo-dictator by Western countries. 

The strongman has ruled the kingdom for the last forty years with an iron hand. This has come about with rising cooperation and the backing of China.

At this point, the one-party Communist state in Beijing has snuffed out democracy in Hong Kong. It also gives ongoing backing to the Myanmar junta.

Thailand is confronted with starker choices. It is true to say that it is still neutral, even more so, no one quite knows which way it will hop

As Thailand navigates the intricate web of South China Sea tensions, it finds itself being cautious. Historically adept at maintaining a neutral stance, the Kingdom now confronts starker realities. It is an evolving and more dangerous geopolitical landscape. 

The delicate balancing act, witnessed on Sunday at the ASEAN-Japan Summit, reflects the challenges and choices Thailand faces.

It must balance its long-standing alliance with China with the shifting dynamics of regional alliances. The coming months and years will no doubt shape Thailand’s diplomatic course. Bangkok still seeks to retain its neutral posture. It may ultimately be forced to take a clearer stand. Which way will it hop? No one knows.

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