By Preechapak Tekasuk
Last week, Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and her Democrat-affiliated colleagues pressured the Thai government on its treatment of pro-democracy protestors.
Meanwhile, as one of his first foreign policy moves, president-elect Joe Biden may organize the “Summit for Democracy.”
The summit is where Washington will invite leaders from like-minded countries across the world to a forum. The purpose is to assure its allies that the US will stay on the course in spearheading democratic development worldwide and, most importantly, countering China.
Will General Prayut Chan-o-cha be invited?
The world doesn’t see Thailand as democratic.
For instance, Swedish MP Olle Thorell said he would rally support from both the Swedish parliament and the European Union to put Thailand on a strict monitoring list. As well, in October, Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Mass has spoken out against the Thai government blocking the “path to democracy,” and the Thai king’s allegedly directing Thailand’s politics from German soils.
The Prayut Regime’s rise to power was not democratic, nor is its current rule.
But as unpalatable as it may taste, the answer is yes, Thailand will be invited to join the democracy club. This is not because Thailand qualifies democratically, but because Thailand qualifies as a critical geopolitical player in Southeast Asia.
Fixing Donald Trump’s ASEAN mistake
One of the outgoing President Donald Trump’s foreign policy fiascoes was to alienate its global partners through trans-actional diplomacy, a practice that essentially leads to tariff and trade wars.
The Trump doctrine was a zero-sum game that prioritizes short-term benefits, to the chagrin of key allies in the Asia-Pacific region such as Australia, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and ASEAN’s member-states, including Thailand.
The Trump administration has allowed China’s encroachment into Southeast Asia. Countries such as Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar are ever more dependent on China economically and politically.
Losing Thailand, a long-time Cold War-era key ally, to China would be a huge mistake.
The importance of setting a low ceiling
If Biden sets the democratic ceiling too high, key geopolitical nations would not be invited to the democracy club.
From India’s annexation of Kashmir in 2019 to Myanmar’s crackdown of Rohingya in 2016-2017 and the Philippines’ war on drugs in 2016. From Poland to Hungary and elsewhere, most countries don’t always practice democracy, and, let’s face it, neither does the US. To exclude others means the democracy club will just be the usual members of the Five Eyes and the E3 group consisting of the US, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Germany, and France.
The US cannot afford to leave anyone out more than ever because China is waiting to scoop up the leftovers.
That’s why Thailand, ruled by a military regime pretending to be a democracy, will be invited to the democracy club. It’s more about strategy and less about democracy.
But definitely, General Prayut will have this to gloat about.
(Preechapak is a foreign policy scholar specializing in China, Taiwan, and Thailand.)