Signs of modern Chinese influence are increasing in this Southeast Asian nation.   Photo copyright Richard S. Ehrlich archive

BANGKOK, Thailand -- China's navy quietly sailed into the shallow, energy-rich Gulf of Thailand earlier this month for Blue Strike 2023, a joint naval exercise to increase Beijing's influence with Thailand's newly elected, military-backed civilian government, which is also a strategic U.S. treaty ally.

Meanwhile, in his first political foray onto the international stage, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin flew to New York and attended the UN General Assembly Sept. 18-24, where he met President Biden and other politicians along with Google, Microsoft, Tesla, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is also eager to scrutinize and charm Thailand's new prime minister, and invited Mr. Srettha to visit Beijing Oct. 8-10.

The U.S. and China are eyeing the new administration and its views on international investment, tourism, trade, and weapons purchases.

On Aug. 22, Parliament ended three months of bickering and agreed on a pliant civilian-led, 11-party coalition government fronted by Prime Minister Srettha, a real estate tycoon.

"Thailand is like a sick person," Mr. Srettha said on Sept. 11 in his first policy statement to Parliament.

"Tourism and spending are recovering so slowly, that there is the risk of economic recession," he said.

Washington and Beijing are also assessing the U.S.-trained military's Sept. 1 promotions of officers and factions, to see if there are any shifts in Thailand's attempt to balance its relations with the two superpowers.

"The selection of Gen. Charoenchai Hinthao [also spelt Jaroenchai Hintao] as army commander was a big win for military officials closer to the U.S.A.," Paul Chambers, Naresuan University lecturer in Southeast Asian affairs, said in an interview.

"The same can be said for the choice of Royal Thai Armed Forces Commander Gen. Songwit Noonpakdi, and new Air Force Commander ACM [Air Chief Marshal]  Panpakdee Pattanakul who favors U.S. F-16s and F-35s for Thailand. 

"Only the Thai navy remains tilted toward China," Mr. Chambers said.

The Pentagon is especially concerned about Bangkok's military support for U.S. security interests, amid confrontations between Washington and Beijing over territorial claims in the South China Sea and Taiwan's political survival.

"Thailand is trying to keep away from the U.S.-China differences about Taiwan," Mr. Chambers said.

In 2003, then-President George W. Bush designated Thailand a "non-NATO treaty ally," and the two nations' militaries are closely linked after decades of training and experience.

China's defense minister said in June: "Attempts to push for NATO-like [alliances] in the Asia-Pacific is a way of kidnapping regional countries and exaggerating conflicts and confrontations."

Those alliances will "plunge the Asia-Pacific into a whirlpool of disputes and conflicts," Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu said.

"Against the backdrop of the Asia-Pacific currently facing some security challenges, China is willing to jointly maintain regional stability with Thailand and ensure lasting security in the region."

China wants "more fruitful cooperation between the two militaries, especially between the two armies," Mr. Li said.

A former foreign minister, Kantathi Suphamongkhon, said, "Even though it is unlikely that we would see intentional U.S.-China military clashes in the region, conflicts may come about by accident when tensions are high. 

"Thailand will try to maintain good relations with Washington and Beijing as much as possible," Mr. Kantathi said in an interview.

Washington also has other ways to woo Bangkok.

"The U.S. needs to engage more with Thailand in terms of investment, trade, ODA [official development assistance], U.S. military aid, and joint U.S.-Thai military exercises," Mr. Chambers said.

"The Srettha government will likely continue the balanced hedging policy between China and the United States because such a policy enhances Thai business interests," he said.

"We have good relations with China and the United States," Mr. Srettha told a recent forum.

"We have to be neutral. Not leaning one way or the other."

The military appears satisfied because Prime Minister Srettha appointed, as defense minister, a civilian school teacher who has no military experience.

Defense Minister Sutin Klungsang said he welcomes the military's advice about weapons purchases and other affairs.

"I don't have a deep understanding about these issues, but I'll seek advice from the armed forces and security experts, although some of them have worked for previous [coup-installed] governments," Defense Minister Sutin Klungsang said.

"This is a coalition government comprising two main factions, one led by Thaksin Shinawatra and the other by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, so it is likely that the meddling through of balancing relations with China, and with the U.S.A., will likely continue," another former foreign minister Kasit Piromya said in an interview.

Those two factions are a twisted forced marriage. 

Mr. Thaksin was an elected civilian prime minister 2001-06, ousted by then-army chief Prayuth who was supported by the military, royalists, wealthy influential families, and other conservatives.

Their animosity against him increased when Mr. Thaksin fled abroad, dodging court convictions for financial crimes and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in absentia.

Recently, however, the two enemies joined forces, enabling Mr. Thaksin to return to Bangkok last month and have his combined sentences shrunk to one year in prison.

He currently is in the Police General Hospital amid accusations he is enjoying plush treatment instead of a grotty cell.

The military, royalists, and other conservatives appear to have united with the popular Mr. Thaksin so he can be their weapon against a new, more popular usurper, Move Forward Party's Pita Limjaroenrat, who threatens them all.

In May, Mr. Pita won a majority in Parliament's elected House, campaigning to weaken the monarchy's tight protection against criticism, and strip the military of its political and commercial powers, end the draft, and oversee military promotions.

As a result, the military-appointed Senate and royalist elected House rejected Mr. Pita's bid to become prime minister.

Instead, Parliament supported Mr. Srettha in the Pheu Thai party which is considered de facto under Mr. Thaksin's control -- even from his hospital bed through relatives, lawyers, and other supporters who are allowed visits.

The seemingly agreeable Prime Minister Srettha is widely perceived as Mr. Thaksin's puppet.

Mr. Srettha's experience among Bangkok's luxury real estate market and international businesses however may help him promote Thailand amid competition by other investment-friendly, dynamic Southeast Asian neighbors.

"The U.S. is paying more attention to Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Thailand is somewhat overlooked and ignored," Mr. Kasit said. 

"So it is up to the new Thai government to make itself heard."

The good news for Washington, after decades of financial aid to Bangkok, is its favorable image among many Thai politicians.

"Not one Thai political party is anti-U.S.," he said.

"The soft power of the U.S., such as education, scientific and technological achievements, should be more promoted. Cultural exchanges should be reactivated by more frequent visits to Thailand by political leaders, senior government officials, and academics," Mr. Kasit said.

To enhance relations, "the U.S. needs to engage more with Thailand in terms of investment, trade, ODA [official development assistance], U.S. military aid, and joint U.S.-Thai military exercises," Mr. Chambers said.

The Royal Thai Navy meanwhile wants to purchase three Chinese submarines even though the U.S. is training Thai submariners along Thailand's west coast in the Andaman Sea, which opens to the Bay of Bengal and splashes Myanmar, Bangladesh, India's east coast, and Sri Lanka.

"Thailand’s Beijing-leaning foreign policy began under Pheu Thai’s original founder and prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, and has continued unabated under every Thai administration since," Bangkok-based Benjamin Zawacki, author of "Thailand: Shifting Ground Between the U.S. and a Rising China," said in an interview.

"Be mindful of the connection between the origin of Thailand’s initial pro-China leanings, and who is now back in power," Mr. Zawacki said.

China's Sept. 3-10 annual Blue Strike joint naval exercise with Thailand reportedly included more than 2,500 personnel from both countries, a Chinese submarine, amphibious dock landing ship, guided-missile frigate, and a supply ship.

A Royal Thai Navy photograph showed China's Changcheng submarine at Thailand's Sattahip port near Bangkok on the first day of the exercise, with white-uniformed Thai navy officers walking a gangplank into its top hatch below the sub's conning tower.

The land and sea training in the Gulf of Thailand and at a marine camp onshore at Sattahip, included "sniping tactics, jungle survival, and maritime search and rescue," the Bangkok Post reported.

Both sides also learned about "chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear defense."

In May, Thailand awarded the U.S. multinational energy corporation Chevron's Thailand unit 15,030 square kilometers under the gulf to explore for and produce petroleum.

The new block is reportedly next to a Chevron natural gas production block and is expected to contain more gas.


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his two new nonfiction books, "Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. -- Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York" and "Apocalyptic Tribes, Smugglers & Freaks" are available at