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Diplomatic wisdom demands we balance ties with US, China

Geopolitics in this region - after China's move in the South China Sea - sparked new hope for the Thai elite and the military last week. They expected strong backing from Beijing against the fierce response from the United States and its Western allies over the latest coup in Thailand.

Territorial conflict between China and some Asean members - as well as the US's pivotal policy to shift forces to take care of American interests in the Asia-Pacific - sent an impression, but perhaps a wrong signal, to many Thais that old-style politics among nations had returned.

The Thai elite understood that Washington had to confront Beijing, which is emerging to be a new powerhouse of the world. China is the only single country in this region strong enough to deal with the US.

To the Bangkok's elite's disappointment, the US - a long time military and political ally of Thailand - strongly criticised the military coup and cut military assistance as well as cancelled joint exercises. One US ally, Australia, did more by downgrading military cooperation and imposing travelling restrictions on Thai senior military officials.

To the elite, the American attitude should not change because the coup in Thailand is business as usual and Washington does not need to say or do anything but endorse the winner.

Furious pro-coup academics, columnists and many in high society suggested that the junta shift its foreign policy away from the US and get closer to Beijing.

Indeed, the Thai elite knew - but had forgotten - that American friends under previous president George W Bush had done the same when the Thai military had staged the previous coup in 2006. The administration in Washington had legal obligations to do so, but it would not push beyond a level that could hurt its interests.

Also, normally, China would be among the first group of countries to express its understanding of the coup - but this time the Thai elite would have received that gesture with more pleasure.

Junta chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha called on Chinese businessmen to help create a good understanding of the situation in post-coup Thailand in order to retain investments and tourists from China.

"Thailand will be China's strategic partner in all levels of cooperation for a long time," Prayuth was quoted as saying by the junta's spokeswoman Pattamaporn Rattanadilok na Phuket.

It is not wrong to engage with China. Thailand regardless of its government has engaged and been a strategic partner of Beijing for a long time, bilaterally and multilaterally.

But China would not and could not be an ideological shield for the Thai elite to protect itself from criticism on not being democratic. The Chinese, like the Americans, have their own interests in Thailand. Their trade and investment interests with Thailand are not much different.

A ridiculous anti-American products campaign on social media disappeared quickly from cyberworld, as the campaigners realised they were doing so on "American" Facebook and via "American" iPhones, perhaps through WiFi from American fast-food outlets like McDonalds. Meanwhile the Chinese are waiting for the junta to make a decision on the high-speed train project and railway system development in which Chinese investment has great potential.

International relations these days are really more complicated than in the Cold War era. The US does not consider China an opponent but it is a "competitive strategic partner". They might have disputes in some areas but have plenty of cooperation in many fields.

A good strategy will be to balance the two, not to choose between the two. If Thailand wants to see the consequences of playing the China-card policy, one can look at Myanmar's history over the past half century.


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