The Newsletter 84 Autumn 2019

Thailand: Shifting Ground between the United States and a Rising China

Katsamaporn Rakson

Benjamin Zawacki. 2017.
Thailand: Shifting Ground between the US and a Rising China
London: Zed Books 
ISBN 9781783608690

This book shines a useful light on Thailand’s foreign relations since the end of the second World War. Benjamin Zawacki creates a great contribution to the study of Thailand’s triangular relationship with the United States and China, examining the way in which Thailand could situate itself among greater powers. The book presents a succinct and well-informed analysis and investigation on Thailand’s efforts to maintain, balance and bandwagon positions with greater powers. The author argues that at the end of the Cold War the United States became a choice for Thailand to strengthen its relationship with. China has risen in power during the 21st century and, as a result, the relationship with China has also been a fundamental concern of Thailand.

In the earlier stage from the commencement of the Vietnam War in the 1950s, Thailand’s relationship with Washington was close, particularly in terms of helping to maintain regional peace and security. However, after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, Thai elites shifted Thai foreign policy behavior towards China. The United States seemed to disregard the increasing power vacuum in its relationship with Thailand. The re-emergence of China’s engagement with Thai diplomatic relations has been generally welcomed among Thais. This has provided enhancement of economic cooperation between the two countries.

The book has been divided into two parts, consisting of 10 chapters. Zawacki chronologically examines the evolution of Thailand shifting positions between the United States and China over the course of time. Thailand was selected by Zawacki as a single case study and has presented as a well-written piece of work, adopting a content analysis approach. The deeply rhetoric descriptions illustrate the challenging positions that Thailand has faced since the end of the Second World War.

The author focuses in the first part of the book on examining the historical events of Thai diplomacy and its relationship with the United States and China, from the early post-war period in 1945 up to Thailand’s election in 2001 in which Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was victorious. In the second part, the author examines Thailand’s triangular relationship with the United States and China from 2001 to 2014.


The examination of the American–Thai relationship during the Cold War mainly focuses on the military forces. An interesting point is uncovered, especially regarding the complex relationship with the United States and China towards the end of the Cold War. This bilateral relationship with the United States was a key feature in the formation of Thailand’s political characteristics in controlling security and armed forces throughout the Cold War period. The deepening relations with Washington continued up until the regional conflict in Indochina in the late 1980s.

Nevertheless, Thailand had doubts about the next phase of America’s diplomatic relationship with Thailand after the end of military base usage in the country. At the same time, Sino-Thai relations became much closer after 1978, following Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia. The critical circumstance of the Cambodian–Vietnamese War led Thailand to come under pressure with its security interests. Therefore, Thailand became cautious in its relationship with the United States and China as well as being determined to contain the Vietnamese and Soviet influence in Southeast Asia. Afterwards, China became a significant partner in Thai foreign affairs, as Thailand developed proactive relations towards Beijing in the early post-Cold War era, particularly in economic engagement. On the other hand, Thailand was still tied in its relations with the United States, for example during the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997–2001, in which Thailand suffered from economic collapse. Thailand needed to remain close with the United States, which was demonstrated by following American-led international order in the form of the IMF package and Washington consensus, despite requiring a painful transition period for Thailand’s economic restoration.

In the second part, Zawacki scrutinizes major characteristics of the triangular relationship between Thailand, the United States and China, from Thaksin’s period to the military government in 2014. During Prime Minister Thaksin’s term (2001–2006). Thailand received strong support from China in terms of trade and investment. This illustrated that Thailand could balance itself against or bandwagon with China. While Thailand enjoyed itself with Beijing’s economic ties, Thai–US relations visibly remained apparent in 2001–2006. Due to Washington’s announcement regarding the War on Terror after the 9/11 incident, Thai troops were deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Being a good ally with the United States in the war against terrorism had been questionable, due to sensitivities over the southern insurgency circumstance in the deep South of Thailand. The enrichment of Thai–US relations then temporarily ceased after the Thai military intervened in politics in September 2006.

In addition, Zawacki demonstrates the shift of Thai diplomacy towards China in 2006–2014. China had been more proactive than the United States in terms of economic competitiveness, both bilaterally and regionally. The 2008 financial crisis that emerged in the United States limited the opportunity to drive the idea of a free trade area in the Asia Pacific region. The opportunity of economic growth in Asia was given to China. Thailand deemed that China should become an interested partner in economic cooperation, including defense – offering the benefit of cheaper weapons. Even though the relationship with the United States in military cooperation continued, China–Thailand military ties progressively improved during 2011–2014. Chinese hegemony had expanded over the United Stated in the Straits of Malacca, Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Thailand took a new opportunity to extend its alliance. The strategic cooperation therefore led Thailand to concern about economic diplomacy with China.

Thailand has, indeed, changed its position much over the last decade, focusing on the shift in triangular relations. These shift pathways, however, tend to focus much on the way in which Thailand deals with two great powers – the United States and China – in terms of economy and defense. The author’s work is richly descriptive and provides great fluency and timing in an elegant and original work. I highly recommended this book as an example of the study of Thailand’s diplomacy towards great powers. Finally, I would provide a niche suggestion here. As a reader whose interest in the theme of Thailand’s foreign relations is aroused, I expect to read more publications specially regarding the decision-making process of small states such as Thailand in developing their foreign policy towards bilateral relations with great powers such as the United States and China. This could help readers to comprehend the purposive actions of the policymakers in Thailand and other states that are influenced by the great powers.

Katsamaporn Rakson, Ramkhamhaeng University, Thailand