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US-China rivalry: Where does Thailand stand?

Both US and China see Thailand as an ally

Both US and China see Thailand as an ally

Bangkok hosted a surprise back-channel meeting between United States National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi last week, showcasing Thailand's diplomatic potential among tensions between Washington and Beijing.

The rivalry between the two superpowers has spiked in recent years over a range of economic, security and human rights disputes. Benjamin Zawacki, author of Thailand: Shifting Ground Between the US and Rising China, says the meeting illustrates how Thailand is seen by both Washington and Beijing.

"I do think it shows that both the US and China are comfortable and secure enough in their relations in relations to Thailand vis-à-vis one another," he said. "They thought Bangkok works."

Sullivan and Wang discussed a range of geopolitical issues in Thailand, including Iran, the clashes around the Red Sea, Taiwan, Myanmar, North Korea and disputes in the South China Sea. Both delegates promised to keep in contact on sensitive topics.

Further talks have also been planned- US President Joe Biden is expected to have a telephone conversation with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in the spring, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to visit Beijing in the next few months.

Support for Srettha

But for Thai officials, the results of the summit are secondary. According to Zawacki, the fact that the meeting took place in Bangkok can already be seen as a huge geopolitical victory and reaffirmation of Thailand's policy of not taking sides.

"[Thailand] feels much more comfortable convening power than conveying it. Therefore, they're sort of friends to all, enemies to none," Zawacki says.

And in another boon for Thailand's new Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, the meeting between Sullivan and Wang can be perceived as Washington's endorsement of his government. Srettha and his Pheu Thai Party were not the favorites to take power after last year's general elections, placing behind the more progressive Move Forward Party (MFP). But Thailand's conservative Senate blocked the reformist MFP, allowing Srettha to become prime minister as a compromise candidate.

US and Thailand grow closer

Ahead of the Bangkok talks, Sullivan met with Srettha and other government officials in Thailand. The US national security advisor has also discussed the importance of the US-Thailand partnership and signaled further opportunities to strengthen cooperation and expand trade and security, according to a readout from the US embassy in Thailand.

Thailand and the US enjoy close ties despite a brief diplomatic conflict in the wake of Thailand's 2014 military coup. Washington's opposition to the coup has prompted then-leader Prayuth Chan-ocha closer to China, while Washington reduced its security cooperation and withdrew millions of dollars in military aid to Thailand. But relations have since improved enough to allow for Prime Minister Srettha to briefly meet Biden at the United Nations General Assembly in New York last year.

'Everyone is welcome'

As for Thailand and China, the two Asian nations continue to build on their strong economic ties.

China is Thailand's biggest trading partner with $135 billion (around €125 billion) worth of trade in 2023. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese nationals made up some 11 million of a record 39 million international arrivals in 2019.

During his visit to Bangkok, China's Wang Yi met Thailand Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara to sign off on a visa waiver agreement making it easier for Thai and Chinese nationals to visit each other's country. Yi claimed people of China and Thailand are like "one family."

"Thailand wants to be — and wants to be seen as — being is the place where everyone is welcome," Zawacki said. "We're friendly, we're open. You may all have your differences, but here's a good place to work them out. And we don't want to be involved in those differences. It's part and parcel of its foreign policy," according to the expert.

Edited by: Darko Janjevic