In America’s Competition With China, Democracy Could Lose
If the president condemns a manipulated election in Thailand, the U.S. could lose its oldest Asian ally.
On Sunday, Thai voters will decide whether they want to live in a real democracy or stick with the fake one that Thailand’s military-dominated government has crafted for them. The election has been rigged from the outset, creating absurdly unfair hurdles for the prodemocracy parties challenging the military-backed status quo.
Both the United States and China view Thailand as a major geopolitical prize in southeast Asia. Some in Washington worry that harshly criticizing its government—or a flawed election—would push Thailand further into China’s outstretched arms. As a result, the Biden administration faces a test: Will the White House insist on real Thai democracy no matter the geopolitical costs?
Thailand is no mere puppet in this geopolitical battle. For more than a decade, Bangkok has worked to extract the maximum economic and political benefits from each superpower, driven more by pragmatism than by ideology or values. From China, Thailand has garnered direct investment into its infrastructure and military while, from the United States, it gets security protection and a major trading partner (America imported $58 billion of goods from Thailand in 2022). The Thai political elite has long recognized the advantages of playing the Americans and the Chinese off of one another.
Thailand is America’s oldest Asian ally. Relations between the two countries began in 1818, when James Monroe was president. A formal treaty of friendship followed in 1833. Perhaps most memorably, King Mongkut tried in 1861 to send elephants to help establish a breeding population in the United States for the purposes of transporting goods (Abraham Lincoln graciously declined the offer, stating that steam power was working well and that “our political jurisdiction … does not reach a latitude so low as to favor the multiplication of the elephant”).
Thailand took America’s side in the Cold War and played a major role in the Vietnam War, sending troops to fight there and allowing the U.S. military to launch operations from Thai bases. Today, as testament to that historically close relationship, the American embassy in Bangkok is the fourth-largest U.S. embassy (by area) in the world.
But the relationship has badly frayed since 2014. That year, Thailand’s military seized power from an elected civilian government. The Obama administration condemned the coup, but China was more than happy to swoop in and embrace the military regime under General Prayuth Chan-ocha.
These days Prayuth wears civilian clothes, but he still presides over a state dominated by Thailand’s military, and he’s vying to maintain power in the upcoming vote. To understand the stakes, it helps to know that Thailand has a long history of getting rid of leaders in rather brutal ways. Centuries ago, the elaborate protocol for eliminating a king involved placing him in a large velvet sack and beating him to death in a ritualistic ceremony with a specially chosen sandalwood club. In the 20th century, it was the military brass that leaders needed to fear, not the sandalwood club. Since 1932, 12 successful coups have taken place in Thailand, plus an additional seven coup attempts, making Thailand the most coup-prone country on Earth. Whenever the military didn’t like what civilian leaders were doing, it simply toppled them.
That cycle became less tenable after 2001, when a truly popular political figure emerged on the Thai scene: Thaksin Shinawatra, an electrifying politician from the country’s north, who became more and more populist and authoritarian during his time in office, until the military toppled him in 2006. But his popularity gave him staying power. The military forced him into exile and disbanded his political party, but to no avail. His sister, Yingluck, simply ran in his place and was elected in 2011 in a landslide. Three years later, in May 2014, the military toppled her too.
U.S.-Thai relations broke down from there. Not only did the Obama administration call for a return to elected civilian government; in the years that followed, the United States military sent only a stripped-down force to participate in Cobra Gold, a long-standing joint exercise held annually in Thailand.
When Donald Trump came to power in 2017, the values-based criticism of the junta ended, but that made little difference. As Benjamin Zawacki, an expert on Thailand’s foreign relations and the author of Thailand: Shifting Ground Between the U.S. and a Rising China, put it: Barack Obama “forgot about Thailand and Trump couldn’t find it” on a map.
China—which does business with any regime, no questions asked—was all too happy to step into the vacuum. Beijing began negotiations for a series of major high-speed rail investments crisscrossing Thailand. It struck a deal to sell a military submarine to bolster Thailand’s navy. And Prayuth purchased dozens of Chinese tanks and other armored vehicles for hundreds of millions of dollars. None of this was welcome news in Washington, which was ostensibly in the midst of Obama’s “pivot to Asia.”
Thailand was pivoting to China. Powerful forces drew it in that direction. Many in Thailand’s political and economic elite have ethnic or familial ties that can be traced back, in part, to China. As one former Thai foreign minister told me a few years ago when I interviewed him in Bangkok: “For many of us, our minds are with the Americans, but our hearts are with the Chinese.” Indeed, China has picked up on this sentiment for its official messaging, using the slogan “Zhong Tai Yi Jia Qin,” often translated as “Two lands, one heart,” to describe Thailand and China.
The coronavirus pandemic gave the United States a chance to try to woo back its old ally as China closed itself off to the world, depriving Thailand of the huge revenues it once got from Chinese tourists and trade. The White House took the opportunity to ramp up its diplomatic overtures in 2022. Prayuth met with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin that May, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Bangkok in July. Just a few months later, Prayuth returned to Washington, where Vice President Kamala Harris warmly welcomed him at the White House.
But embracing this Thai government is decidedly at odds with supporting Thai democracy. Since 2014, Thailand can broadly be considered a military dictatorship masquerading as a democracy. The military-backed government has recognized that it can get away with more if it changes the rules rather than outright breaking them with a coup. Officials often describe the 2006 coup as having been “wasted,” because it failed to neutralize Thaksin’s influence on politics. The military vowed not to repeat the mistake in 2014 and instead changed the constitution to ensure that Thaksin—and his relatives and allies—couldn’t win again.
Specifically, the new constitution created a 250-member senate, which was to be appointed by the military and would join the elected 500-member lower house in voting for the prime minister. A promilitary candidate will therefore start with a built-in advantage of 250 votes over any anti-military candidate. By design, the system is rigged against popular parties that favor civilian-led government—including those affiliated with Thaksin.
Despite that electoral manipulation, the reincarnation of Thaksin’s banned political party is being led into next week’s election by Paetongtarn Shinawatra, Thaksin’s 36-year-old daughter, who recently gave birth and then returned to the campaign trail a few days later. Polls in Thailand are often unreliable, but they all point to her leading her party (Pheu Thai) to a sweeping victory. The only question is whether it will be enough to clear the rigged hurdle put in place by Prayuth and his conservative allies.
If Paetongtarn wins sufficient votes to form a coalition, the military might consider returning to its old playbook: banning and disbanding the party under a fresh procedural pretext, as the government routinely does to opposition parties. The government has other authoritarian tools in its arsenal. Outspoken dissidents who have criticized Thailand’s military or monarchy have been found dead in the Mekong River, dismembered, their bodies filled with concrete. And those who have dared to criticize Thailand’s king publicly continue to face draconian prison sentences.
The Biden administration is therefore being forced to choose between democracy and realpolitik. In March, speaking at the Summit for Democracy, President Joe Biden called strengthening democracy “a defining challenge of our age.” But so, too, will be American competition with China, and in Thailand, two of the White House’s top foreign-policy goals seem to be in conflict.
For China, there is no conflict: Beijing will embrace whoever ends up in power. In Thailand and around the world, China is undercutting democracy simply by acting as a credible alternative sponsor to regimes that are tired of being lectured by the United States.
The Thai election could easily lead to violence, whether in street clashes or in another coup. If that happens, President Biden can then make clear whether he means it when he says that America stands for democracy, not just when it’s easy but especially when it’s hard.