By Phuong Nguyen —
Thai prime minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha’s keynote speech at the opening of the Shangri-La Dialogue on June 3 in Singapore stirred debate among those in the audience. Some were inclined to think the former general used the prestigious platform mainly to make the case for the May 2014 coup in Thailand and justify the actions taken since by the military government in Bangkok.
Seen in this light, a more important — and consequential — message was easily overlooked. Prayuth elaborated on what he described as “strategic equilibrium,” the nuances of which should be more fully explored.
Prayuth reminded the audience that although the key actors in the Asia Pacific—the United States and China — remain the same as they were dating back a few decades, the region’s landscape is now much more complicated. Every major actor — be it China, the United States, Russia, or India — wants to have a bigger role to play. He believes that the current architecture in the region lacks equilibrium, creating increasing uncertainty for smaller and developing countries, meaning most countries in ASEAN.
Describing the internal political and social problems that have beset Thailand, Prayuth acknowledged that his country has in recent years lost its strategic equilibrium. This in turn affects Thailand’s as well as ASEAN’s broader regional stability and security. Some might disagree with his glorification of the Thai military’s reform agenda for Thailand, but the takeaway is this: If each country in ASEAN can achieve its own strategic equilibrium from within, regional stability and equilibrium will follow. Achieving this outcome requires addressing the political, economic, and social needs of a society, and tackling security issues — both traditional and non-traditional — with neighbors and partners.
The prime minister called on ASEAN to forge a new strategic equilibrium, one built on the strengths that come from within each country rather than by choosing sides. Regional countries should pursue development in tandem with security, and promote cooperation among the major powers — understood to be China and the United States.
On the South China Sea dispute, a topic on the minds of many defense leaders and analysts at the summit, Prayuth’s message was unmistakable: ASEAN must be united. Prayuth reiterated calls for the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and early conclusion of the Code of Conduct — both of which are standard talking points of ASEAN officials — and urged claimants to show political will to “find any opportunity” to resolve the dispute and find areas of collaboration.
However, he made no mention of the role, if any, of the expected ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the case brought by the Philippines against China’s claims in the South China Sea.
Those looking to hear Thailand’s view on the trajectory of regional geopolitics might have been left wanting, but Prayuth’s core message nonetheless captures the cold fact facing the majority of Southeast Asian policymakers: external equilibrium is hard to achieve without inner strength.
Phuong Nguyen is an adjunct fellow at CSIS focused on Southeast Asia.