Tug-of-War in Thailand

China and U.S. Vie for Influence in Southeast Asia

October 21, 2003

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Decades after the United States fought a Cold War struggle in Southeast Asia, competition for influence in the region has heated up again. This time America's main rival is China, the battle is largely economic and, increasingly, the focus is Thailand.

In February, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra paid a visit to Beijing.

In June, President Bush welcomed him to the White House.

That same month, China signed a free-trade agreement with Thailand on agricultural products. This week in Bangkok, Bush announced the United States would begin negotiations for its own free-trade agreement with Thailand.

Earlier this month, China made what may be its ultimate gesture of friendship: it engaged in panda diplomacy. Two pandas were sent to the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai for a 10-year loan.

Meanwhile, Bush also announced he would grant Thailand the status of "major non-NATO ally," which in the Asia-Pacific region has been given only to South Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Australia. The designation allows the country to buy more advanced military equipment and have more access to intelligence.

"Southeast Asia is the battlefield for the big powers to compete for supremacy in the region," said Prapat Thepchatree, director of the Center for International Policy Studies at Bangkok's Thammasat University.

Bush's visit to Asia this week included stops in the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia -- underscoring the importance of Southeast Asia. He came to Bangkok to attend the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders summit, which ended Tuesday.

Even Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, criticized by Bush this week for his anti-Semitic comments, said the U.S. president was trying to make nice.

"Certainly the United States is seen to be trying to make a comeback," he said. "I suppose that's why President Bush is visiting the region. In the (APEC) discussions he appears to be very accommodating. He appears to want to have a lot to do with the countries in the region."

Increasingly, Thailand is seen as an important player in the region. With exports booming and the economy set to grow more than 6 percent year, it is one of the strongest economies in Asia.

More importantly, Thaksin appears to be positioning himself to take over as the "elder statesman" of Southeast Asia. With Mahathir stepping down this month after 22 years in power and Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong scheduled to leave office next year, the region is facing a leadership vacuum, said Kobsak Chutikul, chairman of Thailand's House foreign affairs committee.

"He likes the international stage," said Kobsak. "Thailand is becoming too small for him."

Thaksin, a 54-year-old former policeman, became the richest man in Thailand by virtually monopolizing the telecommunications market. Domestically, he is viewed as a populist and is wildly popular, especially among the poor. But others are disturbed by his less-than-democratic tendencies, including a bloody war on drug-dealers with accusations of extrajudicial killings, a crackdown on activist groups and attempts to control the media.

Still, his approval ratings are in the 80 percent range and his party is expected to gain seats at the next election, slated for early 2005. He has stated he would serve only two terms, but many believe he could stay in office for 20 years.

"If there were an election today, we would win," he said this week on CNN. "Not landslide, but avalanche."

In an interview with Thailand's The Nation newspaper group before leaving Washington, Bush offered effusive praise for Thaksin.

"He is not afraid to make tough decisions ... I think he is a very interesting, dynamic leader," he said.

Thailand, a constitutional monarchy with 64 million people, prides itself on being an old friend of the United States. It was the first country in Asia -- Thailand was then known as Siam -- to sign a friendship treaty with the United States in 1851. During the American Civil War, King Rama IV sent elephants to Abraham Lincoln to help out on the battlefield.

It was aligned with Japan during World War II, but became a U.S. ally after the conflict and remained supportive, sending soldiers to fight with the United States in the Korean War and Vietnam War.

But the turning point came during the Asian financial crisis in 1997, which was triggered when Thailand devalued its currency. The Thai people didn't understand why the United States didn't help out, as it had previously bailed out Mexico, said Prapat.

"U.S. involvement in the crisis, the heavy-handed arrogance, it was perceived as opportunistic," he said. "After that, Thailand turned more nationalistic and regionalistic."

The nationalism also helped propel Thaksin to office in January 2001. He pursued a development strategy that brought Thailand closer to China and concentrated on improving ties with neighboring countries. His supporters included business people with big investments in China.

Of course, Thailand also needs the United States. It is Thailand's largest export market, and two-way trade is still twice that of trade with China. Most important, American military assistance is crucial to Thai military modernization.

After the Sept. 11 terror attacks in America, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia adopted strong anti-terrorism measures.

"Thaksin realized the only way to readjust the relationship with the United States is to do something on terrorism," said Kavi Chongkittavorn, editor of The Nation newspaper.

He sent troops to Iraq, agreed not to turn over U.S. citizens facing allegations before the International Criminal Court and cooperated with American agents in hunting down suspected terrorists in Thailand.

Yet given domestic political considerations, Thaksin is careful that he isn't viewed at home as too pro-American. The number of people studying Mandarin has jumped and China has become a popular tourist destination.

"Thai people are now in a stage of China fever," said Prapat. "All Thai people are readjusting themselves to the re-emergence of China as a regional power."

Thaksin hosted both Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao for state visits before the start of APEC in a balancing act, engaging both powers and playing one off the other.

"I would call it strategic ambiguity," said Prapat.

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