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What Do Growing Thai-China Relations Mean For The U.S.?

The Royal Thai Navy’s interest in purchasing submarines from China has sparked off a furious debate on geopolitics and U.S.-China power struggles. The Thai elites have articulated an urgent requirement to build up the country’s military capacity in order to be at par with other countries in the region. The Navy has expressed an interest in buying three submarines from China in a bid to cement Thailand’s position in Asian political and defence power structures.

China Thailand

Thailand’s move towards military modernization has been one of many in recent times, all part of the South Asian trend of building a strong marine military presence. The South Asian submarine race, as it has been dubbed, has strongly influenced the defence climate in South Asia. Indonesia plans to fortify its fleet by 2018 by buying submarines from South Korea and Germany while Russia has sold six submarines to Vietnam, raising its fleet from four to ten. In 2012 Malaysia announced two French-engineered submarines.

In light of these events, Thailand has expressed an interest in strengthening its own maritime military capacity. Though the country has stated that the submarines will not be used to go to war with any other state in the region and are only a strategic investment into deterrence, the interest in transacting with China has drawn the attention of the international community. Coupled with the political instability that has plagued Thailand and the recent shift in the country’s governance system, the possibility of a military deal with China has invoked some caution on part of the West in general and the United States in particular.

Even as stronger ties with China offer some undeniable advantages to Thailand within the regional setting, the preference for China over more traditional bidding players such as Sweden and Germany for military alliances has raised eyebrows both internationally and within the country itself. The general public remains unconvinced that preparing for potential future conflicts at sea (though there have been no indications of the same) justifies spending B36 billion on the deal with China.

Weakening Thai-U.S. Relations

Though Thailand and the U.S. have enjoyed historically friendly relations, these developments come in the wake of a series of events that political experts all over the world have dubbed as a “splintering” of Thai-U.S. relations.

The May 2014 coup by the Thai military junta has led to strained ties with the United States. The United States has been reluctant to endorse the military elite, whilst the Chinese government has welcomed them politically and publically. The dichotomy in responses might well serve to induce a change in international strategic relations; the United States’ less-than-encouraging responses are in complete contrast to the authority and credibility the Thai junta has enjoyed as a result of its growing links with China. The ties with China have been appreciated by the national elites because they herald greater regional status and influence for Thailand. At the same time, the growing distance with the U.S. has been blamed for a loss of respect and legitimacy in the global community, as was recently assessed by Thitinan Pongsudhirak, the Director of Chulalongkorn...