Thailand Is Not Lost

Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images
Thai and US soldiers at the end of a live-fire military display, Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand, February 2017

The idea of one country “losing” another implies ownership. It belongs to the vocabularies of the cold war and the Great Game. In Thailand: Shifting Ground Between the US and a Rising China, Benjamin Zawacki argues that since around 2000 the US has “lost” Thailand to China through negligence and bad diplomacy. He assumes that although economic relations among countries are now multilateral, in politics “the world is again more bipolar than multipolar,” with the US on one side and China on the other. “‘Spheres of influence’ à la the Cold War,” he writes, “remain the order of the day.” He wants the US to win Thailand back.

Zawacki’s book has two parts. The first, based on published works and interviews, begins around World War II. The US started to develop its presence in Asia during the late 1940s, when British power was receding and the West came to consider Maoist China an enemy. Starting in the early 1950s, as the US became embroiled in Indochina, Thailand was important because it was next door to the conflict and its military was more than willing to be a US ally. The US built seven air bases from which bombing raids were flown into Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, while Bangkok and Pattaya provided GIs with “rest and recreation.”

With American support and cash, Thai army officers staged a coup in 1957; they stayed in power for sixteen years. The US built one of its largest embassies in Bangkok and posted its top diplomats there. The Thai army received American hardware, the next generations of the Thai officer corps went to the US for training, and Peace Corps volunteers came in droves. During Thailand’s “American period,” the strategic relationship between the two countries was complemented by many personal ties, from barrack-room camaraderies to marriages between American officials and Thai aristocrats.

Zawacki shows that the relationship faltered when the US began to withdraw from Indochina in 1969. Thailand feared that without US protection it would suffer revenge, especially from Vietnam. Immediately, Thai leaders began talking to China. In 1975 the Thai prime minister, Kukrit Pramoj, visited Mao Zedong. Four years later, China attacked Vietnam, forcing it to withdraw several thousand troops stationed threateningly on the Thai border. This was the first point at which Thailand tilted from the US toward China. But Thailand and the US still needed each other because two decades of war in Southeast Asia had left behind animosity between neighbors, mines and unexploded ordnance, and half a million refugees in Thai camps. The Thai-US relationship was patched up, largely with military aid.

In 1997 Thailand blundered into a financial crisis. In return for its assistance, the IMF demanded that Thailand close down many financial institutions and sharply…

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