Thailand: Defence And The Neighbourhood


Cavan Hogue

When Thai officials, academics, and senior military people met with their Australian counterparts at the Australian National University in April 2001, no-one could anticipate the dramatic events in the US five months later. But in discussing changes in the Thai armed forces, their new responsibilities, and their dealings with Thailand’s neighbours, they identified issues that have not so much changed since September 11 but have gained in significance.

Thai experts anticipated further competition in the region between China and the US. While Australia tends to lean more towards the US, most other regional countries seek a balance. This cuts both ways. The US is a useful balance to the power of China and China could be a useful balance to the US. If the US withdraws from the region, India could possibly become the alternative balance. The Thais anticipate India turning more towards Southeast Asia as a result of changes in its relations with Pakistan and its reduced emphasis on the non-aligned movement. The new Thai Government is moving to consolidate relations with India. At the same time, the strategic role of Japan is expected to grow. Thailand is more relaxed about greater Japanese influence than most regional countries. But all countries in the region, including Australia, are using what influence they have to prevent escalation of tension resulting from differences between China and the US.

Whether China is a threat or an opportunity, all the experts agreed that China will grow in importance to Thailand and to other countries in the region. Most saw the growth of China’s economic, political and military power as the key to the future of the Asian region. China has strong influence in Burma and because of its common border, and the chequered history of relations between the two countries, this is a very sensitive issue for Thailand.

Nationalistic and populist movements opposed to the US exist in most countries but few of them control governments. However, Thais detect a greater degree of ambivalence in Thailand than exists in Australia about the US. Australia is accepted by most regional countries as a legitimate regional power and Thailand in particular welcomes an Australian presence. However, Thai experts said there are some countries (not including Thailand) which wonder whether Australia’s ability to project power across the water, as shown in East Timor, might be excessive.

Non-traditional threats to regional security are creating new roles for the Thai military. These include peacekeeping, the transnational drug trade, illegal migration, and aid to the civil power. But experts were uncertain that the armed forces could be trained to perform these non-traditional tasks and whether using the military was the best answer to these problems. Illicit drugs are no longer just a local problem but a major national issue. This means the Royal Thai Army (RTA) taking on non-state actors rather than the armed forces of another country. A complex, multi-dimensional approach is a need which the region has not yet recognised. Australia, the Thais suggested, must understand that what happens in the Golden Triangle matters to Australia because the drugs end up here.

However, experts said, the Thai military is being distanced from direct participation in politics and is becoming increasingly more professional. At the same time, a rise in ‘communitarian’ feelings in Thailand has emerged as a response to globalisation. This is more about sovereignty than going back to the farm. It is being promoted by intellectuals who are trying to find solutions to global problems by going back to Thai roots.

The Thai military has learned in Cambodia and East Timor that there must be close cooperation between ASEAN and the UN. A Thai General recommended a regional organisation to oversee this issue. Such a body could make a start with coordinating efforts to combat transnational security matters. The UN planning process for East Timor would have benefited from more regional input. Thais noted that how Australia handles its complex relationship with Indonesia will be a major factor in how Australia is seen and accepted by the rest of the region.

Thai officials and military people saw Australia as having a legitimate role to play in the region. The management of Australia’s relations with Indonesia is seen in the region as a key test of Australia’s skill and sincerity. Commenting on Australians’ view of their place in the world, a Thai general replied that Australians are ‘confused’. Popular attitudes do not always match official policies in Australia. The experts agreed that Australia’s handling of its Asian relationships had far wider implications. In so far as Australia matters to the US and to Europe, it is because of the knowledge and influence it is seen to have in its own region.

WATCHPOINT: If Australia loses its influence in Asia, it will lose its influence in Europe and North America as well.


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