Bangkok, Manila

Between Manila and Bangkok, the Air France pilot announced that two B-52’s were passing “on their way back from bombing South Vietnam.” He spoke with hauteur and a certain distaste; how comfortably detached France is from the Vietnam tragedy. Yet how painfully the Philippines and Thailand are involved in it. The B-52’s were roaring back to Guam, but it could have been to Clark Field, fifty miles north of Manila, or to Ubon in northeast Thailand.

Prince Sihanouk is upbraided by the United States for allowing Vietnamese Communists to use Cambodia as a sanctuary, but Thailand and the Philippines are much more lavish sanctuaries for the U.S. war effort. Between them they host some 90,000 U.S. troops, and their skies are silver with thousands of U.S. planes. Now both countries are becoming nervous.

Outwardly, Manila and Bangkok pulsate as usual. Chiseled white office blocks sprout amidst poverty and potholes in the Philippine capital. Just out of Manila, ragged peasants with an income of $50 per year gaze up at a gasoline advertisement that begins: “After your exhausting car rally. . . .” Between one gorgeous sunset over Manila Bay and the next, three inhabitants of the city are murdered. While 33,000 police struggle, with varying degrees of vigor, to stem the tide of crime and corruption, 64,000 private guards protect the lives and property of an elite that is the world’s most remarkable case of private affluence amidst public squalor.

President Marcos has done little to reduce corruption, which stems basically from the dual system of values of a society in transition from traditional kinship ways to modern technological ways, and which the demoralization of the Japanese occupation made worse. Successful prosecution for graft is unknown.

The rate of population growth (3.3 percent) is almost double the world average, while the rate of economic growth sags at about 5 percent. Imports rose more than twice as much as exports in 1968; more than 8 percent of the work force is unemployed. It is election year, and Filipinos are already gripped by a fever which recalls the Tunku Abdul Rahman’s unkind remark about “offshore Latin Americans.”

In Bangkok, there is no trace of ebullient Filipino emotiveness, but a dry, bland stoicism. One has passed from the realm of the Virgin Mary to that of Buddha, from an ambience of calculation and restlessness to one of resigned, unblinking calm. Though Thailand had a bad year economically in 1968—imports rose 12 percent and exports slumped 20 percent—its rate of growth has generally averaged 7 percent; enough, despite a 3 percent rate of population growth, to put it among Asia’s more prosperous countries.

Along the tangled streets, bicycles and put-puts, like minnows among carp, ply their wares and passengers through traffic jams which would do justice to Manhattan. Thai girls, pretty and cheerful despite the dust and gasoline fumes, glide along the gaudy streets in late afternoon, making ready to “massage” U.S. airmen on R & R (Rest and Recreation; though now there is a new term, “L & L,” which stands for Love and Liquor).

Trappings of monarchy and Buddhism abound. Drums, gongs, and laughter resound at religious festivals held to stress Buddhist truths; the Thais excel in combining devotion to otherworldly values with this-worldly satisfactions. The SEATO building rises handsomely in the center of Bangkok, an untrue reflection of the decay which has overcome the Treaty Organization itself.

Over and out

But within the foreign ministries of both Thailand and the Philippines there prevails a sense of an era coming to an end. Seen from the U.S. side, it is the postwar era. In defeating Japan, the United States became the dominant power in East Asia; now Japan and China have risen from the powerlessness of 1945 to a powerfulness which underlines the artificiality of a massive U.S. military presence. Seen from Manila and Bangkok, the era that is ending has consisted of “SEATO years” and “Vietnam years.”

Both capitals have been strikingly faithful allies of the United States in this era. Except for Pakistan, they are the lone Asian members of SEATO. Except for South Korea, they are the lone Asian participants in the U.S. military effort in Vietnam. But now they sense a fundamental readjustment of the Asian policies of the United States. Furthermore, they can and need no longer pretend that “world Communism” (SEATO years) or “Asian Communism with its headquarters in Peking” (Vietnam years) is a united force which threatens them.

Recently they have between them earned $300 million a year in procurement orders for the war, and they must soon find a way to cushion its loss. They confront the complication of a quiet but substantial Soviet penetration of East Asia, nakedly challenging Chinese influence in the area. In a word, the policies of all three Giant Powers, and the relations between them, are in flux, and the destinies of Thailand and the Philippines will inevitably bounce and rattle with the twitch of each Giant limb.

Reappraisal is the order of the day, but in neither capital is it easy to gauge the depth of the reappraisal. In Manila, politicians, scholars, and journalists can talk so freely and expansively that rhetoric swamps the truth. In Bangkok the repressions of the military dictatorship can so inhibit them that they do not allude to the truth at all.

No better example could be found of the complexities of friendship between a large, democratic AngloSaxon power and a small, traditional, Buddhist monarchy than in the attitudes of Thai Foreign Minister Thanat Khoman. He has held the post since serving as Thai ambassador in Washington in 19A71958, and in recent years has frequently criticized the United States from the flank of the hawks. In conversation, he is dour, sarcastic, oblique, and occasionally illogical. When upbraiding the West, he approaches his target sideways, like a crab, then drifts off in midsentence after he has conveyed his meaning but before he has made an explicit denunciation. His pro-Americanism is not to be identified with the hawk position within the United States, but with a simple concern for Thailand’s survival. He does not want to be a hawk or a clove, he says, because he does not want to be a “sitting duck or a dead duck.” Educated in Paris, he is nevertheless able, like many Thais, to weave Western ideas into the tapestry of traditional authoritarianism, and he has little sympathy with American democracy and liberalism. With Thanat as Foreign Minister, Thailand may sleep in the same bed as the United States, but it dreams different dreams.

In the past Thanat has criticized U.S. liberals like Fulbright and the Kenneths on Vietnam. But when I interviewed him, he struck at the basis of U.S. official policy itself.

We said to Washington: “Why do you Americans want to carry out the bombing of the North? Why didn’t you train the South Vietnamese to do it? Nobody in the U.S. or Europe could have blamed the South Vietnamese for doing it.” We never got a satisfactory answer. “It is too complicated, it requires great technical skill.” So I answered: “How about the North Vietnamese? They have been using MiGx2019;s which are as complicated as U.S. planes. Do you admit that your capacity to train people is so low that you cannot teach the South Vietnamese?” They were afraid that the South Vietnamese would not carry out the bombing in accord with U.S. policies. They would not admit that in public, they would not even admit that in private. But that was. I think, the underlying motive.

There is no record of Thanat opposing U.S. bombing of the North. Nevertheless his method of reconciling his “hawkish” past with a “dovish” readiness to swallow, without undue contortion, the outcome of the Paris Talks, is to blame Washington for Americanizing the war, and to blame the American people for losing their nerve before the operation was completed. So today he favors troop withdrawal from South Vietnam. With great vigor he explained: “When they asked me whether American troops could be withdrawn from South Vietnam, I said by all means and as soon as possible. From Vietnam and also from Thailand.”

Thanat knows that U.S. troop withdrawal from Thailand would produce a crisis for the regime, and perhaps for the country. But if it is coming, the Thai instinct is to find some way to welcome it. If the United States reveals doubts that it needs Thailand after Vietnam, Thanat airs his doubts that Thailand needs the United States anymore. But there is a gap between the public and the real position of both Washington and Bangkok on future U.S. disengagement from Thailand. Both sides stress that U.S. troops are in Thailand purely because of Vietnam. The State Department said in late February that most of the forces would be withdrawn after Vietnam, unless the Thai government asked them to stay. Thanat said they would leave “unless there is some compelling reason for them to stay.” Both sides have left plenty of room for maneuver here.

In reality, U.S. troops were in Thailand before the Vietnam buildup and before the explanation was offered that the troops in Thailand were there purely to support the activity in Vietnam. President Kennedy sent 4800 troops to Thailand in 1692, both to reassure Bangkok and to underline U.S. concern for the outcome of the talks and fighting over Laos. Moreover, some well-informed people think the U.S. military is a little more involved in counterinsurgency within Thailand than is suggested by the official “advisory role” that does not extend “below regimental level.” Buried in the February, 1969, “Semi-Annual Assessment of Thailand”—it is put out by the U.S. embassy in Bangkok, mainly for U.S. businessmen—we find the revealing statement: “The Thai authorities are beginning to plan for the eventual phasedown of U.S. military activity in the Northeast.” U.S. Ambassador Leonard Unger, an able career man who knows the area and the Thai language, does not anticipate precipitous or complete U.S. military withdrawal. And U.S. military men bluntly assert that it would lie impossible for the Thais even to keep the bases (especially the fantastic port facility at Sattahip) in working order by themselves.

Thanat is striving to keep all bis options open. His pet gambit is to flaunt before anxious American eyes the specter of a “dialogue” between Bangkok and Peking. He likes to recall how Chen Yi “drank many toasts to me” at the tenth anniversary celebrations of the Bandung Conference in 1965. Foreign Office aides allude acidly to the Warsaw talks between China and the United States: “When Thailand talks with China, it will be public, not furtive.”

Thanat now insists that Thailand is not hostile to China. He spoke of China sharing in “formulating policy for the future of Asia.” He now casts doubt on the precise meaning of Chen Yi’s statement of 1965 concerning Thailand, which Bangkok has hitherto regarded as a “declaration of guerrilla war by China against Thailand.” You ask him whether Peking has changed its attitude toward Thailand, and no evidence is forthcoming that it has. Why, then, has Thanat changed?

His gesture toward China is less one of hope about Chinese intentions than of fear about American intentions. Should the United States disengage from the Asian mainland, Thailand could not avoid adopting a conciliatory policy toward China. Thanat is taking out an insurance policy against that eventuality. He is also sidling up to Cambodia, with whom relations have long been bad. (Thanat got mad at the Kennedy Administration when, in a dispute before the World Court between Thailand and Cambodia about the temple Khao Phra Vihan, Dean Acheson argued the Cambodian case and won it for the delighted Cambodians.) In quiet ways a remarkable thaw is under way between Bangkok and Pnompenh.

Except for Laos, Thailand is, from the point of view of external dangers, the most vulnerable country in the region. Its borders are a nightmare: discontent and terrorism on its Malaysian border; territorial disputes with Cambodia; 900 miles of shared border with a Laos that is at least half under the control of the Pathet Lao rebels; and the enormous 1200-mile stretch with its historic enemy Burma, on which there are disputes about fishermen and sanctuary for anti-Rangoon Burmese rebels.

Laos is the number-one problem, after Vietnam, for Thailand. Few people in Bangkok doubt that the Pathet Lao, aided by Hanoi, could take Vientiane if they made a concerted effort to do so. Currently there are signs that Vientiane, alert to prevailing winds, is growing cooler to Bangkok and warmer to Hanoi. A Vietnam settlement which does not include some fresh arrangements for Laos will bring little comfort to the Thais.

American embrace

If the tendency of Americans in Bangkok is to consider Thais impossible to understand, in Manila it is to treat Filipinos as if they were Americans, and thus take them for granted. In dealing with the United States, the Thai problem is one of communication: the two cultures scarcely make contact with each other. By contrast, the Filipinos have been so close to America that they are at once affectionate and resentful toward it. The Philippines is the country in Asia closest to the U.S. culture; Thailand is one of the most distant (there are many peasants in Thailand who do not know the United States exists). In dealing with the United States, the Filipino problem is not so much one of communication as of the Filipino quest for spiritual liberty from the American embrace.

The Thais, never having been colonized, are neither resentful nor obsequious toward foreigners. They do little to resist the U.S. impact. “We have nothing to resist it with,” remarked a Thai writer. Yet the impact is minimal. Thais welcome foreign influence, yet are unswayed by it. Filipinos resist the U.S. impact with cries of indignation. Forty-eight years of U.S. colonialism, followed by twenty-three years of what a Foreign Ministry spokesman referred to as “semi-colonialism,” have given them an abundance of emotions with which to resist the American impact. Yet the impact is enormous. As one ambassador in Manila observed, “You are not sure that the Filipinos would not prefer to remain a kind of colony.”

In Manila there is remarkable civil freedom, notably of the press, whereas Bangkok has taken few steps toward Western liberalism. “Stand in the middle of a street in Bangkok,” observed a Filipino writer, “and say Thai Prime Minister Thanom Kittikachorn ought to be murdered, and you will be arrested for a political crime. Stand in a Manila street and say Marcos ought to be murdered, and you will lie arrested for obstructing the traffic.” Surely a mark of political civilization. In Manila there is also a strong commitment to the U.S. tradition of civilian control of the military, whereas in Bangkok the government has long been a military dictatorship. At U.S. bases in the Philippines, the U.S. flag flies, not the Filipino flag. In Thailand this would be unthinkable.

Paradoxically, there is more antiAmericanism in Manila titan in Bangkok. The cold, objective realities of Thailand’s international position in the post-Vietnam period compel a foreign-policy reappraisal. It is a matter of calculation. The Philippines is less vulnerable, being surrounded by sea rather than by jungles full of Communist soldiers and cadres. The Philippines foreign-policy reappraisal is as much a matter of the heart as a matter of calculation. It is the most notable case in the history of the republic of the flexing of nationalist muscles, which every Filipino President since Roxas has desired (initially) to practice.

President Marcos, although he entitled his 1969 State of the Nation message “New Filipinism: The Turning Point,” chose as his foreign secretary Carlos P. Romulo, who has been widely considered an “American boy.” Voluble and suave, Romulo also has a reputation as a weathercock. The morning I went to see him, his previous visitor had been General Creighton Abrams, U.S. Commander in Vietnam. Had there been some consultations on the war, perhaps on the prospects for peace? No. The Philippine Minister was not treated to any discussion of substance. The two men reminisced about West Point and other nostalgic aspects of the American scene. It is this combination of affection and total powerlessness that frustrates Filipinos in their relations with the United States. Whether they can do anything about it is a large question. Whether they can do anything about it with their present methods is an even larger question.

In his January message, Marcos referred to the “perhaps inevitable withdrawal of American power” from East Asia, and the need for the smaller nations to “establish the foundations of a viable relationship with Red China.” Here is the core of his new foreign policy.

Almost every Filipino President has petitioned Washington with a laundry list of grievances. One concerns the “parity” rights written into the Philippines Constitution which give U.S. citizens equal rights with Filipinos in the exploitation of Filipino natural resources. Understandably the demand is to abolish these rights, which Romulo called “symptoms of our lingering enslavement.” Another is a demand for greater control over the three great U.S. bases, Clark, Subic, and Sangley, at which there are sometimes incidents involving the shooting of Filipino trespassers, followed by a light punishment for the U.S. offender. There is nothing new in these demands.

What is new is the Filipino realization of change in the relation of the United States to Asia. Romulo sees two factors. The polarized international situation of the past, in which the Philippines had to choose a protector and stick by it, no longer exists. Second, to quote Romulo, “Events are beginning to show the diminishing value of reliance on one’s ‘friends’.” Here lies both an economic and a security factor. The Philippine economy is sick, and one of its needs is new markets for the sugar and copra which are the country’s chief exports. It is believed that external trade must be diversified by selling to Eastern Europe. Some also look to China as a source of cheaper imports, especially those congressmen and journalists who have visited Peking.

Romulo believes that the Philippines has been treated less well by the United States in matters of trade and aid than “neutral countries and former enemy countries.” An emotive note creeps in. “Filipinos were traders long before any Western conquistador came here to trade, and we traded with anyone who had the goods to trade. Why should we not trade with anyone today? Like Thanat, he is fond of recalling his meetings with Chen Yi, his “fellow Asian.”

But there is also a highly practical angle. Peking has in the past offered to sell rice to the Philippines— until last year rice was still being imported—at a far lower price than it was paying for U.S. rice. Marcos refused, partly owing to U.S. pressure, partly because he objected to having the rice labeled “from the People’s Republic of China” and to the establishment of a Chinese trading agency in Manila. But that was two years ago. In the circumstances of 1969, when events are forcing the Philippines to pursue paths that seemed merely vaguely desirable previously, Marcos is unlikely to refuse such an offer again.

Romulo now says the external threat to the Philippines is negligible. Furthermore, he regards the U.S. bases as “magnets” for (Chinese) attack, creating a threat which would otherwise not exist. And the bases, vital as they are to the United States, especially with the likely reversion of Okinawa to Japan, are not considered by Manila to be important for defending the Philippines. It is recalled that the existence of U.S. bases did not save the country from attack anti occupation by Japan. Therefore Romulo turns fresh eyes upon China. Two of his first acts as Foreign Secretary were to lift the previous ban on social contact between Filipino diplomats and Peking diplomats, in capitals where both exist, and to order ins officers henceforth to refer to China as “The People’s Republic of China,” not as “Communist China” or “Red China” (as Marcos had done just days before).

Severe limits are put upon any close ties with Peking by the nervousness of the government about the Chinese minority within the Philippines. No such problem arises, however, with the Russians, and there is a springtime growth of trade and cultural plans linking Manila with Moscow and other Eastern capitals. Enormous excitement has attended these innovations, as when the Bolshoi Ballet arrived in March. Hitherto forbidden fruit tastes especially sweet. One leading politician was so impressed with an opportunity to play host to a Soviet editor that he telephoned the best restaurant in Manila and said “I want gold plates. I want a meal such as you have never prepared before.” As the evening progressed, the Russian remarked: “Well, you capitalists, you live well, I must say. Yes, it’s good.” It will not be long before the Russians add an embassy in Manila to their growing collection in Southeast Asia.

Brave talk

Uncertain of the future, Thailand and the Philippines belatedly begin to urge regional solidarity and cooperation among the Asian states. But Manila and Bangkok do not sound very convincing when they bravely talk of a “new cohesiveness among the free nations of Asia” (Thanat) as a replacement for U.S. dominance in East Asia.

More vitally, the future security of the two countries may hinge upon whether or not the United States and China achieve mutual understanding and mutual respect. The essential problem of East Asian security is not merely one of organization, but also one of power. The present crisis results from an evident shift in the power realities. The United States prepares to disengage, in some degree. China, over the next decade or two, is likely to extend its influence in varying ways into any vacuums that occur on its doorstep.

At this stage, although the Chinese have held their Ninth Party Congress and Nixon has been in office nearly five months, the Asian policy of neither superpower is clear. But in Sino-U.S. relations, change can only really mean improvement. If Nixon deploys military power more sparingly in Asia, as seems likely, Peking will probably respond. For it is “U.S. encirclement,” not verbal assaults or bagatelles of cultural exchange, that concern China most. Anxiety about the U.S.S. R. is also a factor which may predispose Peking to improve its relationship with the United States. Said Foreign Minister Chen Yi to a European ambassador this past spring: “The Americans are bastards, but honest bastards. The Russians are liars and traitors.” From the U.S. side, domestic pressures to reduce the U.S. military role in Asia make it inevitable that Washington will have to deal diplomatically with Peking. Moreover it gets increasingly harder to ignore Peking as it speeds ahead with its nuclear weapons program. Nixon’s “era of negotiation” has come—perhaps more quickly than he wanted— in Asia as well as Europe.

Assuming the emergence of a workable Vietnam settlement, to which both China and the U.S. are parties, the pressures upon Thailand and the Philippines may decrease. Rather than having to choose full-scale U.S. protection and thus incur Chinese hostility (or the converse), they could hope to find security within the wider framework of a U.S.-China understanding; or, if no such understanding develops, by trying, in the manner of Sihanouk, to play one Giant off against the other. The nasty uncertainty (for Thailand especially) is that one cannot know, until the United States starts to withdraw troops, how much Chinese hostility is due to U.S. presence and to use of the country as a sanctuary in the Vietnam War.