- Competing Logics:Between Thai Sovereignty and the China Model in 2018
In September 2018 a quarrel between a Thai border guard and a tourist from the People's Republic of China at Bangkok's Don Mueang Airport turned violent. The argument took place after the Chinese visitor was denied entry on the grounds that he could not produce evidence that he would return to China after his trip to Thailand.1 The incident should be worrying for Thailand, given the country's increasing reliance on the growing numbers of Chinese tourists since the coup of 2014. Yet this incident is also symbolic of the internal pressure generated within the Thai state as a result of having to manage China's encroachments on Thai sovereignty.
In 2018 the Thai military government struggled to maintain a balance between two opposing policy logics. On the one hand, China has become not just a critical economic partner but also a potential model of governance; on the other, Thailand's resilient strategic culture and national identity each emphasize sovereignty and independence, requiring judicious diplomacy with the great powers as the primary tool to achieve these ends. Clearly, there is a tension here: while Thailand may find the stability of authoritarian capitalism attractive, it no more wants coercion from China than it does from the United States.
In this chapter I assess the extent to which 2018 may have seen the high-water mark of Thailand's embrace of China and its adoption of the China [End Page 341] model. I argue that while permanent traces of this connection will remain in the form of more repressive domestic security policies and the goal of greater mainland Southeast Asian economic connectivity, warming relations with the United States will balance Thailand's strong tilt to China over the past five years. The article proceeds in five parts. I begin by examining Thailand's domestic political situation, highlighting how, since 2014, the junta's need for legitimacy has increasingly relied on the Thai elites who fear the rise of a mass movement capable of urban disruption. In the second section, I contend that Thailand is seeing the development of a protection pact between elites, such that they are prepared to sacrifice political liberties for increased security. Here, I document the rise of the Internal Security Operations Command over the past five years. In the third section, I look at Thailand's partial embrace of the China model of governance, which is both the consequence of the protection pact among the elites and the Chinese influence as an authoritarian centre of gravity. In the fourth section, I appraise the obstacles preventing Thailand's full transition to a China model, which can be explained by the widespread local preference for democracy and Thailand's strategic culture. I also examine indications that Thailand is beginning to limit its accommodation of China's interests and to turn back instead towards the United States. In the fifth section, I survey what 2018 has meant for the Thai military, including in terms of posture, procurement, budget and great power relations.
The Legitimacy Deficit
Like all unelected military governments, Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha's regime suffers from a legitimacy deficit. While there was some justification for a strong hand at the tiller to oversee the royal transition in the months following the passing of the beloved King Bhumipol Adulyadej in October 2016, there have however been no signs that the change has provoked additional instability in the Thai body politic. On the contrary, the new monarch has settled in rapidly, making a series of changes to increase the autonomy and financial security of the palace.2
One alternative path to legitimacy consists of competent economic management and delivering strong sustained growth. In this regard the junta has been placing significant hope in increased border trade and seeking to push forward with infrastructure projects. For example, the junta expects that the Eastern Economic Corridor will generate sufficient economic growth to help Thailand escape the middle-income trap by raising per capita income from US$6,500 to US$20,000 [End Page 342] within twenty years.3 The Eastern Economic Corridor...