Thai junta seeks deeper 'China pivot', lauds Beijing's leadership style

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 29, 2014 Thai prime minister and junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha (L) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinxing during APAC Bilateral Meeting at the Great Hall of the People on November 9, 2014 in Beijing, China. (Picture: Facebook/Khaosod)

Thailand's military government is seemingly seeking closer ties with China, as seen with the approval of a big infrastructure project and some odd words by Thai junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha.

It is no big surprise that Thailand is not on best terms with some countries since the coup and still has an uphill task to gain the international reputation and respect it craves, despite being an authoritarian military government that does not tolerate dissent and continues to move the date for promised elections further and further into 2016.

With many relations - especially with Western countries - decidedly chilly (we reported), Thailand is looking closer to home for allies. We have previously reported that neighboring Cambodia and Burma have welcomed the military junta and gave their amicable endorsement of the new regime. And while it has maintained the familiar official stance talking to those countries that "understand" Thailand and those who "don't understand" (read: all those that condemned the coup), it nonetheless tries to play nice with countries that play a crucial economic role, especially with Thailand's biggest foreign investor Japan.

The other regional superpower Thailand's junta has been trying to court is China. Given that nearly all Western countries - especially the United States - have downgraded (but not completely given up due to strategic reasons) their relations with Thailand since the coup, it did not come as a surprise when then-army chief and still-to-this-day-junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha greeted Chinese businessmen as his first guests shortly after the coup of May 22 in an effort to woo investors back to the country and help jump start Thailand's struggling economy. That was shortly followed by a visit of Thai military commanders to China.

Other bilateral meetings between Prayuth and Chinese leaders took place during the Asia-Europe Meeting in October, where he met China's premier Li Keqiang and a month later at the APEC Conference hosted in Beijing with president Xi Jingping. The latter would welcome Prayuth again to the Chinese capital last week, where both countries signed a memorandum of understanding to develop and build a "medium-speed" rail network linking the countries.

And it was after that most recent visit General Prayuth Prayuth said in his weekly TV address last Friday:

"I spoke to Chinese President Xi Jinping and he told me that 60 years ago his country was (one of) the poorest in the world. In 30 years they were able to make their country a world economic superpower," Prayuth said. "But we are still bickering amongst ourselves."

"Thai leader cites China as positive example in year-end message", Reuters, December 25, 2014

It's not so much the envy towards China's economic growth and power that is striking, but the apparent perception by the junta leader that the "bickering" in the Thai political discourse is what's holding us back. One could mark this down as yet another of the half-baked throwaway thoughts that General Prayuth has become quite (in)famous for. He essentially ignores the fact this "bickering" is in fact the political discourse that in the past decade has turned into an ongoing crisis mostly because of the refusal of the politically established elite to accommodate a changing social and political landscape, as this blog has debated for years and most recently here. Also, it doesn't help that the junta is intolerant of dissent and criticism, as evident in yet another blow-out by Prayuth against the press, threatening to shut shut dissenting outlets down - a threat supported by his deputy.

Nevertheless, Prayuth's remark also hints at a genuine reverence towards an effective, authoritarian one-party rule in exchange for economic propensity. With the junta currently sitting comfortably in power (in part thanks to ongoing martial law)  and pushing its political "reforms" through appointed bodies, it can consider implementing some of these elements, as the some of the constant chatter from the Constitutional Drafting Committee suggests:

ส่วน คสช.จะทำหน้าที่ต่อไป โดยอาจปรับเปลี่ยนใหม่ อาจเป็นรูปแบบของ "คณะกรรมการพิทักษ์รัฐธรรมนูญ" เพื่อดูแลการทำงานของรัฐบาล ซึ่งจะมีลักษณะคล้ายกับรูปแบบของกรรมการโปลิตบูโร

Concerning the future of the “National Council for Peace and Order” [NCPO, the junta's official name], it may be transformed into something like a "Committee to Protect the Constitution" that oversees the work of the government,  similar to a politburo.

"สะพัด! คสช.เสนอโมเดลใหม่! สส.ลต.รวมสว.สรรหา 500 คน-ให้คสช.อยู่ต่อ ควบคุมรัฐบาล", Matichon, December 23, 2014

A politburo is an executive committee usually found in one-party-ruled, communist countries like, guess what, China! Now, the idea here seems to be more that the junta will remain to co-exist beside a partially or fully elected parliament and would hawkishly watch over the government.

With the number of possible partners abroad ever dwindling - in contrast with the foreign minister stating that Thailand is getting "due recognition" by "4.7bn" of the world that support the junta "100 per cent" - Thailand's military junta hopes that its relationship with China may be its ace in the hole. But that may turn out to be a zero-sum game because, as The Economist argued, in the end China has nothing significant to gain or to lose from this relationship, while the junta is under more pressure (especially domestically) to deliver on all fronts.