Japan’s Balancing Act in Thailand

By Joshua Simonidis

Frayed Thai flag. Source: Tasayu Tasnaphun’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

The coup in Thailand in May 2014 and the country’s subsequent deviation into autocratic military rule has alienated it from its long-time democratic partners, namely the United States and Japan. The United States’ call for an immediate return to civilian rule has led to a significant decrease in interaction with Thailand. Japan has worked largely in tandem with the United States, but has also followed its own policy toward Southeast Asia. Japan’s leaders have strongly encouraged a return to democracy while also maintaining economic relations that aid the Thai economy and sustain robust relations for Thailand’s eventual return to democratic governance.

Following the coup, Japan joined the United States in condemning Thailand’s new military government, and both countries called for democracy to be reinstated. Washington reacted by reducing engagement with Thailand and cutting military aid. In a speech delivered in Thailand in January, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel said that U.S.-Thai relations will not return to normal until Thailand is back under civilian rule. Russel’s speech was met with immediate indignation by senior Thai officials. Moreover, Washington questioned jointly-hosting Cobra Gold, the region’s largest multilateral military exercise, with Thailand, deciding to go ahead only after considerable delay and a reduced scope. As the prospect of delayed elections looms, the United States has scrapped the first preparatory meeting for 2016’s Cobra Gold exercises amid the prospect of cancellation.

Tokyo also took a hardline, pressing the Thai government for a return to democracy and cutting back their level of engagement. However, this shifted last October when state minister for foreign affairs Minoru Kiuchi visited Bangkok to discuss Japanese investment in 18 Thai provinces as well as the possibility of trilateral talks between Thailand, Myanmar, and Japan on the proposed Dawei Special Economic Zone. In February, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe became the first leader of a G7 country to invite Thai prime minister Prayuth for a visit since the coup. Prayuth’s visit to Tokyo saw the signing of an agreement on Japanese investment in Thailand’s railway sector, and a commitment from both sides to forge ahead with the Dawei project.

These actions may appear as weakening resolve, but are part of Japan’s policy of engagement with Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia. Japan has a long history of interaction with ASEAN, and, throughout much of it, based its policy in large part upon the Fukuda Doctrine of 1977, which stated that Japan would develop a peaceful relationship of mutual confidence with ASEAN, and assist and cooperate with its members as an equal partner. This doctrine contributed to a policy that saw extensive official development assistance going to ASEAN member countries. This allowed Japan to continue to develop strong relationships throughout the region’s political and economic development. In the case of Thailand, this manifested itself through extensive loans, training, investment, and development of infrastructure that helped transform the country into a regional manufacturing base for cars, electronics, and other products. As a recent survey from the Japan Bank for International Cooperation demonstrates, Japan’s overseas business operations and investment in Thailand continue to provide a strong platform for economic engagement despite concerns about instability.

The Fukuda Doctrine steered Japan’s policy toward Thailand and ASEAN for 40 years. Prime Minister Abe has outlined five principles for engagement with ASEAN reiterating the importance of economic cooperation and assistance but also emphasizing freedom of expression and speech as well as rules and norms for maritime security. Through this framework, Japan’s policy toward Thailand can be understood in the context of developing the region economically while also nurturing democratic values.

The U.S.-Japan alliance is rooted in shared democratic values and ideals, and both countries promote the virtues of democracy in their foreign policy. The Abe government coordinates closely with Washington on regional diplomacy and engagement with ASEAN countries is a priority for both countries. Japan’s recent initiatives to increase economic engagement with Thailand demonstrate a nuanced approach to Thailand’s unstable political situation. This does not mean that Japan has abandoned its emphasis on democratic governance, but perhaps accepted that the status quo has changed for the time being. This moderated stance allows Japan to continue to reinforce its relationship with Thailand even during this tumultuous period in its governance. The delicate balance between economic engagement and upholding democratic principles will likely remain a challenge for Japan’s diplomacy in the region.

Mr. Joshua Simonidis is a researcher with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS.


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