- - Thursday, December 3, 2015


Hillary Clinton’s famous “pivot to Asia” never made the turn needed for Barack Obama’s administration to face up to the threat to Asia, which is China’s expanding regional aggression. China’s mammoth size, of both territory and people, makes it the heavy. “When China spits,” the ancient wisdom goes, “Asia swims.”

The people who swim there have shown due skepticism of Mr. Obama’s commitment to his pivot, as executed by Mrs. Clinton, especially in view of their growing Chinese commercial ties and their over-the-shoulder look at Beijing’s expanding navy.

That’s why the American ambassador’s remark in Bangkok last week came out such a clinker: “I don’t spend a lot of time, I don’t spend any time, saying to Washington, ‘here’s how we get Thailand back,’ said U.S. Ambassador Glyn T. Davies. “We haven’t lost Thailand. I think it’s a good thing for Thailand to have a good relationship with China.”

Mr. Davies, a career diplomat who came up through the munchin works in Foggy Bottom, might have used more politic language. Perhaps he did not intend to be quoted. Relations between Washington and Bangkok have soured since the May 2014 coup in Bangkok, another in a history of military takeovers and the second in a decade. The subsequent crackdown by the junta, encouraged by China, has strained U.S.-Thai relations. The Thais have thanked China with gestures, such as sending back to Beijing several human-rights exiles, and participating in joint military exercises.

Mr. Davies has expressed the American opposition to laws prescribing long prison sentences for “slander” of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is treated by Thais as a particularly delicate flower. To curry popular favor, the junta has gone all out to show its reverence for the 87-year-old monarch, whose unifying role is jeopardized by poor health and the unpopularity of his son, the crown prince.

Pundits who have just walked into the conversation raise alarm over the Chinese competition to the strong U.S.-Thai alliance, crucial since the early days of the Cold War and particularly during the war in Vietnam, when the United States maintained several large air bases in Thailand. The longer view is a recognition that the Thais have always tried to balance their act.

During the colonial period, when Siam was a quaint backwater, the Thais played France against Britain to remain the only country in Southeast Asia to maintain independence. Later, with strong personal ties to Woodrow Wilson’s Presbyterian missionary family, Thailand retained access to both sides during World War II. One regent for the king, Pridi Phamnamwong, a minor, was secretly in cahoots with the Americans. His rival was a partisan of the European fascists and of a puppet government controlled by the Japanese.

Bangkok’s flirtation with China can be seen as the 21st century version of an old game, playing both sides to maintain independence. But it’s difficult now because Thailand has emerged as one of the strongest economies in Southeast Asia. There is new danger, too, in expanded communications — including rail and road access from China and neighboring Laos, new “geography” for a region once accustomed to Chinese emigration only by sea. In that earlier time the Sino-Thai elite emphasized their native customs and traditions, and that, too, is more difficult now, when it’s more profitable to embrace China.

Everything is more difficult now with the government in Washington determined to “lead from behind,” with little skill in playing a traditional regional role of supporting local nationalism and freedom of navigation. So the Obama administration stumbles along, trying to make the promised pivot.

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