Thailand’s Political Turmoil Hurts its own Foreign Policy Outlook

Since the 2006 coup which ousted the democratically elected government headed by Thaksin Shinnawatra, Thailand’s political landscape has been in a state of twists and turns.

thailand-foreign-policyThe Thais have been divided into two major political cliques: One side deeply believes in the principle of one-man-one-vote as a fundamental precept to true democracy whereas another holds that “a fair election without vote buying” is indispensable to democracy.

Despite realizing that the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) will emerge in 2015 as a result of agreements among the ASEAN members, the Thais are at each other’s throat over who should legitimately define democracy. This on-going political crisis in Thailand will be a core factor which influences regional integration in the future. Recall that in 2009 when Thailand hosted the 14th ASEAN Summit, the Thai protesters who demanded the resignation of former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva broke into the venue of the Summit which resulted in the termination of the meeting.

Nine foreign leaders who participated in the regional gathering needed to flee for their safety. The Summit had to be postponed indefinitely. That was a huge embarrassment for Thailand. Furthermore, this case demonstrates how political splits can jeopardize foreign policy and regional affairs.

While Burma is undertaking reforms in various dimensions, Laos is improving infrastructure. Vietnam is following guidelines of regional connectivity in terms of logistics, yet Thailand is plagued by internal divisions. When the AEC materializes in 2015, the free flows of goods, capital, skilled labor, and service will not be directed to Thailand as the people of ASEAN will be very uncertain about the political chaos which may breakout anytime.

To put differently, political turmoil is not a healthy climate for investment

Tourists will definitely avoid disorder in Thailand, and target other neighboring countries instead. Apart from the political effects on regional integration, political conflict in Thailand will affect great powers’ strategies toward Southeast Asia as well. This in turn would endanger the conduct of Thai foreign policy. Traditionally, the nature of Thai foreign policy is to pit great powers against one another in order to reap benefits from both.

Nonetheless, the current crisis will encumber Thailand’s traditional approach to pursue a usual foreign policy as great powers are barred from playing their parts. During the Cold War, Thailand was a significant strategic location for the US to contain the communist threats from China and the Soviet Union. Currently, Thailand has been viewed as a fulcrum for great powers such as the US and China who seek to struggle for supremacy in this region. Hence, support from Thailand is crucial for them to formulate foreign policy strategies in this region. Yuriko Koike, Japan’s former defense minister, commented in her latest article in Project Syndicate that Thailand is a lynchpin which has a geostrategic importance for both the US and Japan to counterbalance against China.

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Thailand’s location is a significant platform from Japanese and American perceptions

In this regard, disarray in Thai politics is a grave concern for Tokyo and Washington. The grand strategy of the US is to persuade Southeast Asian nations to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership to encircle China would be disrupted. The annual US-Thai military joint training between the two will not be able to carry out in this current situation. In a similar vein, the Thai political deadlock will be an obstacle to China as well. Because China is clear in not intervening in domestic affairs of other countries, it will unquestionably not interfere in Thailand.

In this light, China’s recent approach to improve ties with Southeast Asian countries in October 2013 has to be disengaged temporarily as Thailand is in crisis, and China will stay out. This implies that both the US and China are paralyzed from constructing a strategy which is relating to Thailand. With Washington and Beijing unable to perform their great power roles in contesting to provide benefits for Thailand, it simply means that Bangkok cannot pursue its traditional foreign policy which aims to play one great power card against another.

The problem of political cleavage in Thailand needs to be coped with immediately. The conflicting parties in Thailand are each claiming to resort to demonstration on behalf of Thai national interests. Nevertheless, the present-day political calamity hurts foreign policy in the long run. Thus, a solution to this political deadlock should be formulated straightaway in order to prevent further damages to foreign policy.

Peera Charoenvattananukul is a Thai pursuing a postgraduate degree in International Relations and Politics at the University of Cambridge.