Over the past three years, as Thailand-United States relations soured following the May 2014 coup in Bangkok, many commentators argued that the Thai government was suddenly alienated from the United States and moving closer to China. Although the Obama administration had vowed to bolster diplomatic, strategic, and economic relations with Southeast Asian nations, as part of the pivot, or rebalance, after the coup it supposedly froze Thailand out, pushing Bangkok into the arms of Beijing. And, while the Donald J. Trump administration has made human rights a low priority in U.S. foreign policy, and hosted Prayuth for a visit in July 2017, the Trump administration’s distrust of diplomacy, gutting of the State Department, and “America First” themes have not generally played well in Southeast Asia.
The reality was always more nuanced. Thailand did not suddenly break from the United States after the 2014 coup or upon Trump’s inauguration, and China did not suddenly gain massive new influence in the kingdom in the 2010s. More important, as Benjamin Zawacki reports in this timely new volume, the kingdom’s balancing act between giants actually goes back decades. Instead, Zawacki reports, Thailand, which has integrated ethnic Chinese better than most other Southeast Asian nations, and did not cut all links with Beijing even during the Cold War, has been moving toward China for over fifteen years; the U.S.-Thai relationship that existed in the 1960s and 1970s will never return. For more of my assessment of Zawacki’s important new book, see the full review in the Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia.