Thailand caught once again in the middle of two opposing camps
Thailand's bilateral relations with the United States appear to have entered a much more challenging period in the wake of Nasa's cancellation of its proposed weather research project at Thailand's U-tapao air base.
The cancellation followed the Thai Cabinet's decision to submit the Nasa proposal to Parliament for a debate by the joint House/Senate session, before granting permission.
Given that the joint House-Senate session will not take place until August, the Thai Cabinet decision effectively delayed the Nasa research scheme beyond its previous schedule. As a result, the proposal was cancelled for this year.
In a related development, US President Barack Obama reportedly cancelled his planned to visit Thailand following next month's Asean Regional Forum (ARF) summit in Cambodia.
Undoubtedly, Thai-US relations appear to have cooled as Thailand struggles to balance its interests vis-a-vis world's superpowers.
On the one hand is the US, which remains the world's foremost superpower in terms of military might and economic prowess. On the other is China, Asia's largest economy and the world's second largest in terms of GDP.
China has been wary of the US's expansion in Asia over the past several years, especially among Asean countries. Besides Thailand, the US has boosted relations with the Philippines and Vietnam to a level that may pose a concern to the Chinese. It has also announced plans to boost its military deployment in Asia and the Pacific.
This shifting global geopolitical and economic landscape has put Thailand in a renewed precarious position, similar to that during the Cold War, when parts of Thailand were used by the US military.
Prior to the Thai Cabinet's June 26 decision to forward the Nasa proposal to Parliament, senior officials from both the US and China held top-level meetings with Thai counterparts. Among these were China's vice foreign minister Fu Ying; General Jing Zinyang, a top military commander; as well as Andrew Shapiro, the US's assistant secretary of state. Earlier, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, also visited Thailand and paid a courtesy visit on Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
In other words, Thailand is being sandwiched by the two superpowers, making it necessary to ensure that the country does not lean excessively towards any one of the two.
For China, its senior officials have made it clear that Thailand should not be used as a "tool" by the superpowers, while noting that Asean as a whole has a crucial role to play in the new geopolitical and economic landscape as the US returns to the region to "re-balance" its global interests.
Fu Ying was quoted during an interview in Bangkok as saying, "Asean should exercise its independent judgement to move this region forward. If Asean takes sides, it will lose its relevance. Asean has an important role to play with its tried-and-true 'Asean Way', as major powers are shaping new relations in the region."
According to Fu Ying, China's relations with Asean countries are of "unquestionable priority" and China will continue to support Asean's "centrality" in East Asian cooperation.
Fu Ying also met with Thai Foreign Ministry permanent secretary Sihasak Phuangketkeow last week, as Thailand takes over the role of Asean's coordinator with China for the next three years, starting from July.
It was an astute move by the Cabinet to turn to Parliament on the Nasa/U-tapao issue. But Thailand will still have to master a great balancing act again - perhaps for years to come.