Diplomacy has served Thailand well, enabling the kingdom to manage its foreign affairs flexibly and relatively unencumbered by intrusions of major foreign powers. Remarkably adaptive to shifts in international currents, Thailand has almost always aligned itself with the dominant power in the region in its effort to ensure security, increase trade, and preserve national independence. In the 1980s, its primary concern was to normalize relations with Cambodia and Laos--relations that were complicated by the Vietnamese military presence in these countries.
Since World War II, no single factor has shaped the style and substance of Thai foreign relations more than the establishment of a communist-run government in China in 1949. The communist triumph aroused a Thai fear of southward Chinese expansion, in which the economically powerful and ethnocentrist Chinese minority in Bangkok might serve as a potential fifth column. Chinese intervention in Korea in 1950 and growing evidence of clandestine communist Chinese roles in local insurgencies in Southeast Asia reinforced Thai resolve to act in concert with other anticommunist nations. The formal installation of a communist administration in Hanoi after the decisive defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954 set the stage for Thailand's signing of the Manila Pact, a collective security agreement, in September 1954. The resulting Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), as the regional body was formally called, had as its members Australia, Britain, France, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, and the United States. SEATO headquarters was in Bangkok.
Nevertheless, Thailand viewed the effectiveness of collective security with some degree of skepticism. On March 6, 1962, in an attempt to allay Thai apprehensions, the United States and Thailand reached a new understanding under what came to be known as the Rusk-Thanat agreement (named after then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk and then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Thanat Khoman). Under the agreement, the United States pledged that, in the event of aggression it would help Thailand unilaterally without prior agreement of all other parties to the Manila Pact.
During the 1960s, Thailand maintained close economic and security ties with the United States, while at the same time striving to foster regional cooperation with its noncommunist neighbors. Its assumption was that regional solidarity and national security were mutually reinforcing and would provide an effective deterrence to communism. In 1961 Thailand joined Malaya (since 1963, Malaysia) and the Philippines in launching the Association of Southeast Asia as a nonmilitary, nonpolitical vehicle for consultation and mutual assistance in economic, cultural, scientific, and administrative matters.
In 1967 the Association of Southeast Asia was replaced by a broader regional group, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), comprising Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. The members agreed to cooperate in food production, industry and commerce, civil aviation, shipping, tourism, communications, meteorology, science and technology, and Southeast Asian studies. Consultation and cooperation were to take place through an annual ministerial conference held in each of the five ASEAN countries in alphabetical rotation. As a result of the formation of the regional organization, consultation between Thailand and the other ASEAN countries on external problems increased greatly in the 1970s.
The Thai response to the external uncertainties of the 1970s was a graphic demonstration of the flexibility of its foreign policy. The external catalyst was an apparent shift in American strategic thinking with regard to China and the Vietnam conflict. The shift was sensed in Bangkok in the late 1960s--in March 1968, when President Lyndon B. Johnson expressed his intention to seek a negotiated peace in Vietnam and again in July 1969, when President Richard M. Nixon told Thai leaders in Bangkok of his intention to lower the future American military profile in Asia without undertaking any new security obligations. At that time, Nixon reaffirmed the United States resolve to "honor its present commitments in Southeast Asia" and to continue its support of Thai efforts in the areas of security and economic development. Not surprisingly, in 1968, before the "Nixon Doctrine" was proclaimed in 1969, Thailand hinted at its desire to open channels of communication with China, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). These channels were considered necessary by the Thai in order to solve difficulties and achieve peaceful coexistence. In late 1970, a government committee was set up to explore the possibility of normalizing relations with China.
After 1971, as the United States and China moved toward reconciliation and detente, Thai soul-searching began in earnest. In 1972 Thailand sent sports teams to China, and in 1973 Thailand made overtures to Hanoi for a dialogue shortly after the United States and North Vietnam signed a cease-fire agreement. In 1974 a Thai delegation conferred with Chinese premier Zhou Enlai in Beijing on measures to improve bilateral relations. At that time Zhou was reported to have assured the Thai delegation that China would stop aiding communist insurgents in Thailand, while underlining his concern over increasing Soviet influence in Southeast Asia. In December 1974, the Thai government lifted a fifteen-year ban on trade with China. In March 1975, a month before Saigon fell, Thailand announced its decision to recognize and normalize diplomatic relations with China.
In the wake of communist takeovers in Phnom Penh and Saigon in April 1975, Thailand moved expeditiously to realign its foreign policy. Thailand's security ties with the United States-- the pillar of Bangkok's foreign relations for nearly three decades--were downplayed as part of accentuating a policy of friendship with all nations. In July 1975, the Thai revoked a military accord with the United States under which American troops had been allowed on Thai soil. Thailand also agreed with the Philippines in principle that SEATO, having outlived its usefulness, should be phased out as early as possible. The crowning moment of the policy of readjustment came in July 1975, when Thailand and China signed a formal agreement on establishing diplomatic relations. Noteworthy was the absence of a Chinese demand for the prior removal of American troops from Thailand, in striking contrast to Hanoi's insistence that Thailand should first renounce its policy of "collusion" with the United States before any reconciliation could take place.
The normalization of relations with its Indochinese neighbors became pressing as refugees from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam streamed across the Thai frontier, straining Thai resources and raising tensions in the border regions. Relations with Laos, bound to Thailand by a shared history, religion, ethnicity, culture, and language, were tense. Much of the problem centered on Laotian Meo tribespeople who had taken refuge in Thailand after the communist-led Pathet Lao forces gained control of Vientiane in May 1975. For years the Meo and some Thai irregular troops had waged clandestine operations against the Pathet Lao forces, reportedly with the knowledge and cooperation of the government of Thailand. After intermittent clashes on the Mekong River, Thailand in November 1975 closed the frontier with Laos, causing hardship in Vientiane; this action prevented oil, food, and other essential goods from reaching Laos through Thai territory, the historical transit route to the landlocked country. Tension eased somewhat after January 1976, when the border was reopened following Thai recognition of the new Laotian regime. In August 1976, the two countries signed an agreement on the transport of Laotian goods through Thailand in exchange for Thai air routes over Laos to Vietnam and Hong Kong. Nonetheless, recurring border incidents led to a temporary Thai economic blockade of Laos in late 1977. By the end of the year, Laotian refugees accounted for 73,000 of about 95,000 Indochinese refugees encamped in Thailand.
In April 1975, Thailand was the first country in Southeast Asia to recognize the new regime of the communist Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh. In October the two countries agreed in principle to resume diplomatic and economic relations; the agreement was formalized in June 1976, when they also agreed to erect border markers in poorly defined border areas.
Meanwhile, the withdrawal of all American troops from Thailand by July 1976 paved the way for the Thai-Vietnamese agreement in August on normalizing relations. In January 1978, Bangkok and Hanoi signed an accord on trade and economic and technical cooperation, agreeing also to exchange ambassadors, reopen aviation links, resolve all problems through negotiations, and consult on the question of delimiting sea boundaries. Progress toward improved relations with the Indochinese states came to an abrupt halt, however, after Vietnam invaded Cambodia in December 1978, and in January 1979 installed in Phnom Penh a new communist regime friendly to Hanoi.
This invasion not only provoked a Chinese attack on Vietnam in February 1979 but also posed a threat to Thailand's security. Bangkok could no longer rely on Cambodia as a buffer against Vietnamese power. Bangkok was forced to assume the role of a frontline state against a resurgent communist Vietnam, which had 300,000 troops in Cambodia and Laos. The Thai government began increasing its defense capabilities. While visiting Washington in February 1979, Prime Minister Kriangsak asked for and received reassurances of military support from the United States. His government also launched a major diplomatic offensive to press for the withdrawal of all Vietnamese forces from Cambodia and for continued international recognition of Democratic Kampuchea under Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime. As part of that offensive, Kriangsak also journeyed to Moscow in March 1979--the first visit ever by a Thai prime minister--to explain the Thai position on the Cambodian question and to reassure the Soviets that Thailand's anti-Vietnamese position was neither anti-Soviet nor pro-Chinese. Such reassurances were believed to be necessary in view of Vietnamese accusations that Thailand collaborated with China and the United States in aiding and abetting the Khmer Rouge forces against the Heng Samrin regime.
The Thai offensive, backed by Bangkok's ASEAN partners, was rewarded in a United Nations (UN) General Assembly resolution adopted in November 1979. The resolution called for immediate withdrawal of all foreign forces from Cambodia, asked all nations to refrain from interfering in, or staging acts of aggression against, Cambodia, and called on the UN secretary general to explore the possibility of an international conference on Cambodia.
Foreign Relations since 1980
In the 1980s, the Cambodian-Vietnamese question was a principal concern of Thai foreign policy makers, who found common cause with countries that also opposed the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. Security once again became an important consideration in the determination of Bangkok's foreign policy.
In 1979 the ASEAN members were apparently divided over the Cambodian-Vietnamese situation. Indonesia and Malaysia were reportedly more conciliatory toward Hanoi than Thailand and Singapore, viewing China rather than Vietnam as the principal threat to regional stability. Indonesia and Malaysia wanted a strong and stable Vietnam as a potential ally, or at least as a buffer, against Chinese expansionism. They were inclined to tolerate to a degree the Vietnamese presence in Cambodia and to recognize the Heng Samrin regime, provided that some Vietnamese troops were withdrawn from Cambodia and the political base of the regime was reconstituted more broadly.
The ASEAN differences were turned aside in June 1980, when Vietnamese troops crossed the border into Thailand. The incursion, which coincided with an annual ASEAN ministerial conference in Kuala Lumpur, was contrary to earlier Vietnamese assurances that they would not encroach on Thai territory. The ASEAN foreign ministers strongly condemned the incursion as "an act of aggression" and reaffirmed their undivided support for the UN resolution of November 1979. They also reaffirmed their recognition of the deposed government of Democratic Kampuchea-- their rationale being that to recognize the Heng Samrin regime would be tantamount to rewarding Vietnamese aggression in Cambodia. At the first UN-sponsored international conference on Cambodia held in New York in July 1981, Thailand and its ASEAN allies played a key role in seeking a political settlement of the Cambodian question. The conference was attended by delegates from seventy-nine countries and observers from fifteen others, but it was boycotted by Vietnam, Laos, the Soviet Union and its allies, and some nonaligned nations. The conference adopted a resolution that, among other things, called for a cease-fire by all armed Cambodian factions, the withdrawal of all foreign troops under the supervision of a UN observer group, the restoration of Cambodian independence, the establishment of a nonaligned and neutral Cambodia, and the establishment of an ad hoc committee comprising Japan, Malaysia, Nigeria, Senegal, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Thailand to advise the UN secretary general on ways to implement the resolution.
Relations between Thailand and China improved steadily in the 1980s, with Beijing sharing Bangkok's opposition to Vietnamese military occupation of Cambodia and affirming its support for the Thai and ASEAN stance on the Cambodian question. China sought to reassure Bangkok of its withdrawal of support for the Communist Party of Thailand and offered military assistance to Thailand in the event the latter was attacked by Vietnam. In the mid-1980s, Chinese arms and supplies for the Khmer Rouge resistance forces reportedly were being shipped through Thai territory. In 1985 a telephone hotline was established between Thailand and China in an effort to coordinate their activities in the event of a major Vietnamese incursion into Thailand. Cordiality in Thai-Chinese relations was evident in a military assistance agreement signed in Beijing in May 1987. This agreement allowed Thailand to purchase, on concessional terms, Chinese tanks, antiaircraft guns, missiles, ammunition, and armored personnel carriers.
Despite some friction over trade issues, Thai relations with the United States were very close, especially from 1979 onward. The United States reassured its commitment to Thai security under the Rusk-Thanat agreement of 1962 as well as the Manila Pact of 1954. In addition to backing the ASEAN position on Cambodia, Washington steadily increased its security assistance to Thailand and also took part in a series of annual bilateral military exercises. Spurred by Vietnamese incursions in 1985 and the arrival in Vietnam of Soviet-piloted MiG-23s, Thailand decided to buy twelve F-16 fighter-bombers from General Dynamics in the United States. Moreover, under an accord reached in October 1985, the two countries began to set up a war reserve weapons stockpile on Thai soil, making Thailand the first country without a United States military base to have such a stockpile. The stockpile, subject to approval by the United States Congress, was to be used only in a "nation-threatening emergency" or to repulse possible armed invasion by Soviet-supported Vietnamese and other forces from Cambodia.
Trade was an irritant in Thai-American relations, but many observers agreed that the trade problems would not likely affect the long-standing friendship and cooperation between the two countries. The United States was a major trading partner and by 1985 had become the largest and most important export market for Thai goods. Thailand enjoyed a trade surplus with the United States, which grew from a modest US$100 million in 1983 to about US$1 billion in 1986. Meanwhile, there was growing Thai criticism that the United States had become protectionist in trade relations with Thailand. By 1987, however, many informed Thai had come to believe that problems in Thai-American trade relations would be temporary.
In 1987 Thailand continued to express its desire for mutually beneficial relations with the Soviet Union and to affirm its neutrality in the Sino-Soviet rivalry. Relations with Moscow, however, were merely correct, if not cool, as a result of Thai apprehension over Soviet intentions toward Southeast Asia in general and Vietnam in particular. Thai concern was prompted by Moscow's military aid to Vietnam and its continued support of Hanoi's involvement in Cambodia. During his visit to Moscow in May 1987, Minister of Foreign Affairs Siddhi Savetsila of Thailand told his Soviet counterpart that Cambodia was "the test case" of Soviet intentions toward Asia and the Pacific region. He urged the Soviet Union to use its "immense influence and prestige" to bring about a quick and durable settlement of the Cambodian question. Such settlement, according to Siddhi, entailed an early withdrawal of some 140,000 Vietnamese troops from Cambodia, Cambodian exercise of the right of self- determination, and the formation of a neutral and nonaligned Cambodia posing no threat to its neighbors. At the end of the May visit, a protocol was signed establishing a Thai-Soviet trade commission.
As Thailand and Japan celebrated the centennial of their relationship in 1987, Japan continued to be Thailand's principal trading partner and largest foreign investor. The generally cordial relations between the two countries--dating back to 1887, when Japan was the first country to set up a foreign embassy in Bangkok--were marred in the 1970s and 1980s by a continuous imbalance of trade. In 1984 Thailand's trade deficit with Japan accounted for 62 percent of its total trade deficit for the year, up from 46 percent in the previous year. Japan's economic dominance was much criticized as exploitive and, in late 1984, was the target of a campaign against Japanese goods launched by university students. The Thai government stated that such a campaign offered little or no solution to the deficit problem. Thailand's preferred solution was for Japan to open its market to Thai products, increase its aid and loans to Thailand, set up export-oriented industries in Thailand, and enhance economic cooperation through more active transfers of technology. In 1986 Thailand's trade deficit with Japan decreased 32 percent from the 1984 figure.
In 1987 a major foreign policy goal for Thailand was the restoration of its traditionally cordial ties with Laos, strained since 1975, when Bangkok came to perceive Laos as a client state of Vietnam. In 1979 Thailand and Laos agreed to improve their relations by promoting bilateral trade and allowing free access to the Mekong River by border residents. Nonetheless, relations between Bangkok and Vientiane continued to be tense, marred by frequent shooting incidents on the Mekong. In 1981 Thailand banned 273 "strategic" commodities from export or transshipment to Laos. In mid-1984 armed clashes occurred over the status of three remote border villages. Laos raised this issue in the UN Security Council, rejecting Thailand's proposal to determine the territoriality of the villages through a joint or neutral survey team. Meanwhile, one important economic link continued to be unaffected by political or security matters: Laos sold electricity to Thailand, earning as much as 75 percent of its annual foreign exchange from this transaction.
On the initiative of Laos, the two sides met in November 1986 to reaffirm their commitment to the 1979 accord on neighborly relations. At about the same time, Thailand began to relax its trade embargo, thereby decreasing the number of banned items to sixty-one. Apparently, this action was taken under pressure from Thai businessmen, whose exports to Laos had dropped sharply from 81 percent of the total imports of Laos in 1980 to 26 percent in 1984. Thai exports to Laos increased in 1985 and 1986, but the future of economic links between the two countries was uncertain. With Soviet assistance, the Laotians planned to complete by 1988 a major highway from Savannakhet across Laos to the Vietnamese port of Danang, thus lessening the traditional dependence of Laos on Thailand for access to the sea for foreign trade.
In March 1987, the two sides met again to discuss matters of mutual concern but made no progress. Although 40,000 to 60,000 Vietnamese troops were still present on Laotian soil, Laos continued to accuse Thailand of harboring its historic ambition to dominate the region. Moreover, Vientiane accused Bangkok of being in collusion with the United States in engaging in unfriendly acts to destabilize the Laotian government. The alleged acts, along with Thai occupation of the three "Lao villages," were stated by Vientiane to be the main barriers to improvement of Laotian-Thai relations. For its part, Thailand charged that Laos was aiding the Pak Mai (New Party), a small, pro-Vietnamese, Thai communist insurgent group that had split from the Chinese-backed Communist Party of Thailand in 1979. Furthermore, Thailand accused Laos of turning a blind eye to heroin production inside Laos and of refusing to cooperate in the suppression of narcotics trafficking between Laos and Thailand. In March 1987, the Bangkok Post lamented in an editorial, "It is strange but true that the country with which Thailand has just about everything to share except ideology should happen to be one of the hardest to deal with."
Nevertheless, Thailand was committed to solving its problems with the neighboring states of Indochina--Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. The Thai flexibility in foreign policy that had enabled the country to avoid conquest or colonization by foreign powers included a dedication to maintaining good relations with all nations, great and small. Given this commitment and adaptability, it was likely that Thailand, perhaps in concert with its ASEAN partners, would soon reach a mutually agreeable accommodation with its Indochinese neighbors.
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