In a development that will surely impact growing US-Chinese tensions, US-backed opposition parties have won Thailand’s May 14, 2023, general elections.
A US-backed client regime taking power in Thailand will impact China’s Belt and Road Initiative, threaten bilateral trade and tourism, and perhaps even undermine regional security. This is particularly so should Thailand now begin working more closely with Washington over matters in the South China Sea, over Taiwan, or a number of other points of contention the US seeks to use to unify the region against Beijing, but that Thailand had so far refused to be drawn into.
The two largest opposition parties, Move Forward Party and Pheu Thai Party, defacto run by billionaires Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and Thaksin Shinawatra respectively, secured the largest number of seats in parliament. However, there are a number of legal and procedural hurdles that await them, including a selected senate with significant influence over who will be the next prime minister, as well as a number of legal cases which could potentially dissolve one or both parties.
The Political Capture of Thailand
While Thailand remains the only nation in Southeast Asia to have avoided Western colonization, over the years the US has poured millions of dollars into the Thai opposition, not only helping to build up the political parties themselves, but also by exercising growing control over Thailand’s media and information space, as well as growing influence over Thailand’s educational system.
Because Thailand has failed to act against US interference, it has reached critical mass and has resulted in considerable control over a large and growing electorate especially among young voters who will vote in favor of US-backed parties and against Thailand’s own best interests consistently.
The US government through the National Endowment for Democracy (banned in Russia) has built up legal organizations that lobby to rewrite Thailand’s constitution, media organizations that promote opposition politicians and help organize and lead political protests, and organizations involved in the elections themselves.
Through the US government’s Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI), the US has been building an obedient cadre of young people who are indoctrinated in pro-Western narratives, plugged into US-European professional and political networks, and then encouraged to work their way into the governments, media, and legal systems of Southeast Asian nations including Thailand.
Over the years, these efforts have collectively led to the successful political capture of Thailand – a process the outgoing government and Thai military appear unable or unwilling to fight against. While Thai institutions have in the past successfully uprooted foreign-backed client regimes in 2006 and again in 2014, the networks helping these client regimes into power remain relatively unchecked.
Convincing Thais to Vote Against Thai Interests
Ultimately, US interest in Thailand’s elections revolves around Thailand’s relationship with China geographically, politically, economically, and militarily and a desire to transform it into a relationship that leaves China isolated and embattled.
China currently exists as Thailand’s largest trade partner, investor, source of tourism, and infrastructure partner. China is also an increasingly important provider of military hardware for Thailand’s armed forces. It is clear that China’s rise has had a significantly positive impact on the rest of Asia, and that as China rises, so does all of Asia.
The US, in seeking to encircle and contain China, jeopardizes the stability and prosperity Asia currently enjoys as a whole. The US has openly admitted that it is investing millions of dollars annually to produce anti-China media, to persuade the global public of the supposed “danger” working with China poses. This propaganda campaign manifests itself inside nations with poorly protected information space, like Thailand, and ultimately will play a role in building support for anti-China opposition parties, and parties like Move Forward in particular.
Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the defacto leader of Move Forward, has openly vowed to roll back Thai-Chinese relations, including promising to cancel the high-speed rail network already under construction. He has claimed that Thailand is moving too close to China and has stated he is in favor of pivoting back to the US, Europe, and Japan, never articulating any particular reason why doing so would be more beneficial for Thailand or the Thai people.
The US-backed Thai opposition has imparted Washington’s anti-China agenda on its supporters, encouraging, for example, street protesters to condemn China’s Sinovac vaccines in favor of those manufactured by US-based pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Monderna.
Opposition supporters have also taken to the streets in support of other aspects of US anti-China activities, including expressing support for US-backed separatism in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, China by joining the so-called “Milk Tea Alliance.”
With the US-backed opposition now primed to take office, these agendas, slogans, and vows will begin turning into anti-China policy, just as had happened in nations like in Malaysia and Myanmar when US-backed opposition parties finally took power and began canceling joint projects with China and rolling back their relations with Beijing. In the Philippines, the new government promptly signed basing agreements with Washington to host thousands of US troops, aimed at antagonizing China within the Asia-Pacific region.
As in Europe, So Too in Asia?
While it is clear that a constructive and growing relationship with China benefits the whole of Asia, and that uprooting and protecting against US interference across the region serves the best interests of the vast majority of the people living in Asia and in nations like Thailand specifically, the US has used its ability to interfere politically in the region to convince voters otherwise and to support parties that will ultimately undermine these best interests.
Just as Europe was best served working with Russia on projects like the Nord Stream pipelines, receiving cheap energy from Russia and exporting manufactured goods to both Russia and China, but was forced to cut all ties with Russia, buy more expensive energy from the US, and commit to a self-destructive proxy war with Russia in Ukraine – it seems that the US is successfully capturing Asia nation-by-nation politically, whose US-backed governments are now eagerly committed to a likewise self-destructive foreign policy versus China.
Only time will tell whether or not Southeast Asia is as incapable of protecting its sovereignty as Europe has proven to be. In the meantime, Thailand faces a turbulent near-future as Thais who are aware of their best interests will be pitted against those convinced to work against them.
Brian Berletic is a Bangkok-based geopolitical researcher and writer, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.