China's Shadow Looms Large in Japan-Thai Relations

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko will be in Thailand on Sunday and Monday. It will be their first visit to the nation in 10 years, mainly to pay their last respects to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Their visit to Bangkok makes this a good time to look back on Thai-Japanese relations amid Thailand’s deepening political crisis and the shifting geopolitical landscape of Southeast Asia.

Since the coup of 2014, Japan has served as a source of legitimacy for the Thai military regime. Although Japan has voiced concern about the grave situation in Thailand, it has never imposed official sanctions against the junta. Bilateral ties have remained strong. Japan has been willing to adapt to the changing political climate in Thailand while maintaining its position in the country. This has occurred at the same time as other actors, particularly China, have begun to seriously exert influence in Thailand.

Japan is still the only country in the Group of Seven industrial nations to roll out the red carpet for the Thai junta. The need to protect its interests and to compete with China explains Japan’s active policy vis-a-vis Thailand. Up to 2015, Japan was Thailand’s second-largest importer and third-largest exporter. As Thailand is increasingly drawn into the Chinese orbit, Japan has proposed myriad investment projects to win over the junta. To counter the Chinese rail project in Thailand, Japan has offered the government ¥170 billion in loans for a similar railway scheme.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s trip to Japan from Feb. 8 to 10, 2015, was widely publicized in Thailand as a success in earning recognition from one of the most powerful economies in the world. While in Tokyo, Prayuth discussed a deal with Japan on a high-speed train project that involved the building of tracks connecting Bangkok with Myanmar and Cambodia, as well as state-of-the art trains similar to Japan’s own famous shinkansen. Prayuth also took the shinkansen from Tokyo and Osaka to experience a ride that in the future would be in service in Thailand.

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Earlier, on Jan. 27, 2015, Hiroto Izumi, special economic adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, held a discussion with Prayuth in Bangkok on the high-speed train agreement. Prior to this meeting, Prayuth also met with Abe in October 2014 at the Asia-Europe Meeting in Milan and again, in November 2014, at the ASEAN summit in Myanmar’s Nay Pyi Taw. Japan has provided breathing space for the Thai generals amid Western sanctions against their military regime. Prayuth’s trips to Japan became convenient breaks from the heat of Thai politics at home.

Just last month, Japan and Thailand signed a memorandum of understanding to expand collaboration for the development of small and medium-size enterprises by mutually encouraging business-matching deals between firms of the two countries.

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In the realm of political cooperation, political-military talks between Thailand and Japan, established in 1998, have been strengthened especially as interstate conflicts — such as a clash in the South China Sea — have the potential to disrupt regional security.

Japan is monitoring closely Sino-Thai political-security ties, which have also been upgraded over the years. Since the early 1980s, Thailand has purchased armaments and military-related equipment under this partnership at “friendship prices.” Sino-Thai military links are among some of the most developed in the region — second only to Myanmar, China’s once quasi ally. In 2010, China proposed joint defense exercises and military exchanges to the Thai leaders, hoping to catch up with the U.S.’ military relations with Thailand.

In June 2016, then-Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani visited Thailand and initiated several cooperative programs, such as establishing staff talks between the Royal Thai Army and the Ground Self-Defense Force; dispatching observers from the Royal Thai Army to Japan’s “Nankai Rescue” exercise for the first time; and conducting a multilateral engagement under the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus.

Prashanth Parameswaran reported that bilateral talks also touched on defense industry cooperation and potential transfers of defense equipment. Thailand seems to be interested in specific equipment like the Maritime Self Defense Force’s P-1 patrol aircraft and U.S.-2 large amphibious rescue aircraft.

Following the passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej last October and the enthronement of the new king, Vajiralongkorn in December, there is still no sign of the military’s willingness to step down. The royal transition has left a power vacuum in Thai politics. The military is not certain whether the new king will be well-received by the public and is therefore searching every possible way to entrench itself in politics. But this means that democracy may not be restored soon. The less democratic atmosphere in Thailand has opened a space for countries like Japan to sharpen their strategies and reap the benefits of the situation.

There are growing calls for Japan to sustain its already robust economic measures in Southeast Asia, which is falling under China’s domination. In January, Abe paid a visit to the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Australia. Although Thailand was not included in his itinerary, the objective of the trip was clear — to play a proactive regional role, to counteract rising Chinese influence and even to lessen the fear of declining U.S. influence.

In the end, Japan has chosen to follow in the footsteps of China in endorsing the military regime in Thailand, which may not help improve the country’s political problem in the long run.

 

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies. He is currently a visiting fellow at the University of California, Berkeley.

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