When Thailand serves as the new coordinating country for Asean-China relations beginning July, expectations are extremely high that the country, which has an intimate tie with China, would be able to keep peace and stability through managing competing claims in the troubled South China Sea.
During the past three years (2009-2012) under the Philippine’s coordinating role, the tension in the mineral-rich sea has intensified raising serious concerns within Asean and the international community of possibility of armed conflicts. To prepare for their future engagement both within the bilateral and Asean context, Thailand and China have been quick to get together and positively respond to each other’s mutual security goals as if they were a long-standing alliance.
The high-power visit from all branches of Thai military top brasses to China recently – first in 15 years – was a show-case sending a strong message to the US and the region, Cambodia in particular, that the Thai-China defense and security ties are rock solid and must not be the subjection of speculations. In weeks and months, the two countries have to demonstrate in tangible ways delivering on their pledges and widen cooperation to maintain their special strategic partnership, otherwise it could be a marriage of convenience. Their policies and action – imagine or real – from now on would have a far-reaching ramification on the delicate Asean-China and intra-Asean relations.
During the four-eye meeting in Beijing between Chinese Defence minister Gen Liang Guanglie with the Thai counterpart, ACM Sukhupol Suwannathat, Army Commander in Chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha was tagged along to his delegation. The topic they discussed was two sensitive issues focusing on the South China Sea and the dispute between Thailand and Cambodia over the 12th Century Hindu Temple, known as Khao Praviharn/Phrea-Vihear. Both countries were very firm on each other’s support on their respective issues.
Given the high tension over South China Sea, especially the three-week stand-off between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoals or Huangyan as the Chinese called it, Beijing has tried hard to the non-claimant Asean members to distant them from the Philippine’s assertiveness. Manila has been very frustrated with the lack of Asean. As the Asean-China coordinator, Thailand is naturally the main focus of China’s diplomatic offensive.
While the Thai military leaders strongly backed China over a wide range of bilateral and regional issues, the Thai Foreign Ministry does not always see eyes to eyes with their approach of across-the-board support as the country’s foreign policy has to take into account a myriad of factors and on a case by case basis when decision is being made. With China and South China Sea, the implications are huge and multidimensional. Undoubtedly, Thailand remains ambivalent on the current the China-Philippine quagmire even after listening to the presentation in Bangkok by the Chinese diplomats at the end of April. China reaffirmed its sovereignty over the disputed island saying it has solid historical and legal basis and is in line with international law. For the time being, the Thai positions are rather simple: concerning parties in the dispute should settle their problems peacefully, working on the Regional Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea and most of all, Asean can facilitate the dialogue leading to eventual solutions.
China is very anxious to get Thailand on board as soon as possible for two reasons. First right off is to ensure that China is involved in the COC drafting with Asean as soon as possible. The Asean senior officials will meet again next week for the fifth time in Bandung, Indonesia to discuss a proposal by the Philippines to establish a Joint Cooperation Area as well as the principles and nature of dispute settlement mechanism before the Asean ministers adopt it in July. At the last meeting in Phnom Penh, Asean could not agree on these key COC elements. Truth be told, some Asean members want to bring in China, which expressed the interest to take part since last November, so that Asean and China could agree and eventually adopt the COC without delay. Both sides wasted ten years before agreeing on the guidelines last year leading to the present stage. However, the Philippines and Vietnam, the two strong-will claimants, want Asean to complete all “the possible desirable elements” before any meeting with the Chinese counterparts.
Secondly, China also understands well that the Thai military have little influence over the conduct of diplomacy, especially within the Asean context, except when they are dealing with the national security issues. As evident in the ongoing Thai-Cambodia, the military leaders have not complied fully with the decisions proposed by the Foreign Ministry. The failure to deploy the Indonesian Observer’s Team along the volatile border is a good illustration. It is imperative for China to garner the military’s support at the very beginning. One caveat is in order – the strong China-Thai security ties could be problematic when they are placed in the context of bilateral conflict with Cambodia coupling with the overlapping Asean roles of the two conflicting parties.
Least we forget the current excellent relations China enjoys with Cambodia after prime minister Hun Sen’s policy of rapprochement at the end of 1999. Hun Sen has single-handedly crafted the Cambodia-China relations and transforms China into the country’s No. 1 friend within a mere decade, to fit into dual new strategic profiles he drew up for his country – a young medium-size tiger with the region’s fastest economic growth and a pro-active Asean member. The first objective could easily be attained with the ongoing China’s generous assistance and long-term support including influx of new investment. From 1994-2011, China invested $8.8 billion in Cambodia, making it the largest investor as well as the biggest aid donor to the tune of $2.1 billion since 1992. At the moment, Cambodia also has the region’s largest presence of Chinese immigrants, mainly businesspeople, of nearly one million out of the 14 million local populations. For the latter’s goal, Hun Sen has already made a strong personnel imprint on the Asean agenda judging from the April summit. When the world’s leaders, including the US, China, Russia, attend the Seventh East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh in November under his tutelage, the region’s longest reigning leader will display his diplomatic finesse in boosting the Asean profile.
But Hun Sen’s outspokenness and the Thai-Cambodian conflict can get into the way, especially after the International Court of Justice in Hague comes up with a verdict later this year as it would affect the ground situation at the troubled border. The court’s outcome would swiftly put to test the triangular China-Thailand-Cambodia relations. When China’s two best Asean friends went to war using Chinese-made weapons, it could be a recipe for disaster. At the four-eye meeting with the Chinese leaders, Thailand took great pains in explaining in detail how the Chinese made BM-21 – the multiple rocket launchers – were used extensively and discriminately causing damages to civilian lives and properties across the border. Thailand relies on the US-made weapon systems which were equally lethal and effective. Unlike the Thai-China security ties, the Thai-US alliance lacks the concurrent interests even with the recent announced US pivot to Asia.
The question frequently asked today: Will Cambodia as the Asean chair and Thailand as the Asean-China coordinator together be able to contain the South China Sea debacle? It seems that the answer will depend on China’s reaction, in particular its ability to convince its two non-claimant Asean friends to settle conflict and improve relations to prevent any spilling effect on China’s greater stakes.