Reflections on Thailand, Myanmar and the US pivot
25 Jul 2013|

U.S. President Barack Obama poses for the ASEAN-United States Leaders' Meeting family photo at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, November 19, 2012. President Obama is the first U.S. President to visit Cambodia. [State Department photo by William Ng/ Public Domain]

Myanmar and Thailand have much in common and this is on display now more than ever. Apart from being similar in geographic and population size, they’re the two most prominent Theravada Buddhist Southeast Asian countries. Thailand’s level of development is the envy of Myanmar and a major spur to the opening up that they hope will draw commensurate economic benefits. Historically, border issues and the memories of ancient Burmese invasions have kept a chill in relations, but there’s recently been a warming. Despite different points of departure on relations with China and the United States, a convergence is becoming evident.

In Thailand, the US Cold War vintage treaty remains the foundation of bilateral security relations, and they source military hardware and procedures from the US. There’s little incentive today for drastic changes, but there are few signs of the treaty having much vitality either. Sure, the military exercise Cobra Gold is conducted annually and many regional security partners participate. But in broad terms there’s a sense of strategic drift. Thailand is relaxed—perhaps too relaxed—about the strategic space created by the US alliance. There are reasons for this on both sides.

In the immediate post-Vietnam War years there was a lingering closeness. Today, visiting US officials struggle to get policy traction in seeking to implement the ‘pivot’. Long distracted by events elsewhere, their efforts in Thailand are hampered by a superficial understanding of social and cultural dimensions alien to most Westerners. Conversely, Thais have invested little in the bilateral relationship, even snubbing NASA’s efforts to utilise the US-built airbase at Utapao last year.

In contrast, China is featuring in Thailand more and more, with informal polling suggesting a stronger affinity with China than ever and with growing numbers of Thai students studying there. China is remembered fondly for bailing out Thailand during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and since then the trend has been steadily upwards. Conversely, the United States is resented for its unwillingness to assist financially in 1997 and as a result of disruptive coup-related embargoes and stop-start military engagement. No such sensibilities inhibit China’s engagement—despite having funded a communist insurgency in Thailand a generation ago.

With a resurgent China there’s greater confidence amongst the large Chinese Thai community in identifying with their roots and for Thais to be accepting. Thailand has long been deft at handling competing great power pressures and can still be expected to value the benefits of its US alliance while being wary of entering major new initiatives that would upset China.

Myanmar has long been considered closer to China, but many there have been uncomfortable with China’s dominating presence and influence. Myanmar doesn’t have the same substantial Chinese diaspora as Thailand. But while Myanmar has sought to encourage Western engagement to create some strategic breathing space from China, Myanmar’s leaders still recognise that it’s in their interests for China to be accommodated and treated with caution. After all, China is heavily invested, most notably with the oil and gas pipeline under construction from the Bay of Bengal to Yunnan province. China also has already disconcertingly flexed its military muscle by lending tangible support to separatists operating against the military (Tatmadaw) in Myanmar’s border regions adjacent to Yunnan province.

Inroads for the US military in Myanmar have been modest and slow to materialise. Starting from a much lower base than Thailand, Myanmar appears only moderately enthusiastic about increased involvement with American forces, being careful not to further antagonise powerful and resentful China. Myanmar has been invited to send observers to Cobra Gold, but so has China.

The Tatmadaw’s wariness in opening up too much also reflects that they still have much to hide. Reports of atrocities against remote separatist groups continue to flow and the security forces’ handling of ethnic minorities continues to generate extensive human rights concerns. With little if any exposure to or understanding of international standards and the laws of armed conflict, much work needs to be done to educate and raise the standards of the security forces.

Given the altered dynamics, Thai and Myanmar military commanders are on the best of terms. Cross border VIP visits occur frequently. Thailand is motivated to capitalise on Myanmar’s new-found openness to resolve outstanding border concerns and make some major business deals. One such is the proposed Dawei industrial zone, intended to develop Myanmar’s southeast coast while providing Thailand access to the untapped energy resources in the Andaman Sea.

Myanmar’s reforms are propelled in part by aspirations for acceptance within ASEAN and through it the wider world. ASEAN gives both Thailand and Myanmar a greater voice on the world stage. Yet while other member states face growing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, Thailand and Myanmar have avoided such stresses, so far seeing nothing directly of their concern in these disputes. Both claim they recognise there’s strength in unity, but in the face of growing centrifugal pressures, the utility of ASEAN is diminished as its unity is imperilled. So as Myanmar prepares to take its turn to chair ASEAN next year, their newfound closeness could be usefully channelled to help bolster ASEAN unity. In doing so, Thailand and Myanmar may well consider pressing quietly for enduring—if low-key—US regional engagement.

John Blaxland is a senior fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University. Image courtesy of Flickr user US Department of State.