US President Joe Biden’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance (INSSG) highlighted several strategic policies the new administration will focus on for the next four years, recalibrating and strengthening the US security alliance in Europe and Asia stood out as one of the most important priorities.
The US, according to the INSSG, will “reaffirm, invest in, and modernize the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and our alliances with Australia, Japan, and the Republic of Korea.” In addition to security allies, the US is committed to deepening strategic partnership with India, New Zealand, Singapore, Vietnam, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
However while ASEAN as a whole is referenced, the 24-page long INSSG did not mention Thailand.
Since the US has been committed to strengthening the international order in the Indo-Pacific, where the Southeast Asia region plays a critical role in linking the Pacific and the Indian Oceans, why did the US omit Thailand from its list of Southeast Asian security allies?
Geopolitics determines foreign policy. Biden’s administration is no different, with it committed to coming back to Asia post-Trump and reinvigorating US policy to Southeast Asia high on its agenda. The omission of Thailand shows that economic and security interests outweigh other considerations.
The US-Thailand security alliance has become soured by the growing mutual strategic mistrust over the last few years. Thailand has been actively hedging against the US by leaning towards China in exchange for diplomatic and economic interests.
The issue of base access has long been one of the most controversial challenges of the US-Thailand alliance since the end of the Cold War. Although Thailand is a key security ally, in 1994 Thailand, the administration of Choun Leekpai denied a request by the US for its navy to visit naval bases in the Gulf of Thailand.
With the growing Chinese military assertiveness and aggressiveness in the Asia Pacific region, especially in the South China Sea, the US military wanted to come back to its former bases in Southeast Asia as part of Obama’s ‘Pivot to East Asia’ policy. In 2012, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) were said to have negotiated with Thailand to get access to U-Tapao airfield of the Royal Thai Navy (RTN) in Rayong province. The RTN immediately ruled out the secret plan.
Speculation that the US is attempting to set up a military base in Thailand, however, still continues. In July 2020, General Apirat Kongsompong, the Thai Army Chief, once again rejected any US plan to set up a military base. Securing access to military bases in the kingdom has been one of the most critical challenges to the US’s commitment to Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy.
Thailand has participated in more combined military exercises with China than any other country in ASEAN
While US-Thailand security interests have increasingly diverged, China-Thailand security relations have been growing significantly since the Thai military staged a coup in May 2014.
China has been Thailand’s leading arms supplier and security partner, with the Thai army spending US$335 million to buy 48 VT-4 main battle tanks and 34 ZBL-09 armoured personnel carriers from China in 2016 and 2017 respectively.
In 2017, the Thai government also approved the purchase of three Yuan-class submarines for US$ 1.03 billion, the largest arms procurement proposal in Thailand’s history although that purchase was shelved following a public backlash and mounting political pressure over the controversial deal.
Thailand also bought BL904A artillery locating radar and KS-1C medium- range surface-to- air missile battery from China.
In addition to massive military hardware procurements, Thailand has participated in more combined military exercises with China than any other country in ASEAN. In 2019, Thailand and China planned to set up a joint arms factory and a Chinese naval centre as part of military cooperation, technology transfer and logistics support for Thai submarines.
None of these initiatives, however, is good for a healthy alliance between the US and Thailand. As Zachary Abuza, a professor of Southeast Asian politics and security affairs at the National War College, argued: “Any U.S. Indo-Pacific Command or Pentagon plan that assumes that Thailand will offer the United States certain advantages — such as overflight, port access, or other facilities — in a conflict with China is circumspect. Thailand is no longer a key partner for advancing U.S. interests in the region, especially vis-à-vis China.”
Over the recent years, Thailand has been actively hedging against over-dependence on US security cooperation by leaning towards China for economic and diplomatic interests. Foreign policy adjustments by Thailand has taken place at the high cost of the US’s geopolitics interests in the Indo-Pacific region.
Biden could have intentionally excluded Thailand from the INSSG to give a silent warning to review, reflect and readjust its foreign policy in line with alliance politics.