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Thailand Gets Cozy With China

Walter Russell Mead

More evidence that Obama’s vaunted “pivot to Asia” is ending in retreat and confusion. Reuters:

Thailand and China are in talks about building military production facilities in Thailand, a Thai defense ministry spokesman said on Wednesday, the latest sign of warming relations between China and America's oldest ally in Asia. […]

"The defense minister told his Chinese counterpart that we are interested in setting up facilities to repair and maintain the Chinese equipment we currently have in our arsenal," ministry spokesman Kongcheep Tantravanich told Reuters.

"We will also look to their expertise in producing small arms and other security-related equipment like drones," he said.

Thailand has also held talks with Russia about setting up similar production facilities, said Kongcheep, without giving details.

For Team Obama, a key to the pivot was its linkage with democracy and human rights and international law. The United States was building a coalition of democracies and emerging democracies to stand against China’s defiance of international norms and statutes.

This is the kind of foreign policy that makes Wilsonian hearts go pitter patter. The trouble is that democracy doesn’t seem to be emerging on schedule in the region. Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and Burma aren’t marching to the beat of the Wilsonian drum. As a result, Washington may have to choose—if it still can—between a foreign policy that makes idealistic professors feel soft and fuzzy, and one that deals effectively with the challenge that China poses to regional and global order.

Obama can be as tolerant of bloodbaths and evil dictators as the sternest of realists; just ask the people of Aleppo how inspired they are by the fierce urgency of his shining ideals. But in Syria, Obama was looking for reasons not to act, and so the cold logic of realism worked for him.

In Asia, by contrast, the need was to act with greater vigor and forcefulness, not excluding military shows of force. For that kind of action, liberal Democrats like Obama needed to put on the full armor of light. Thus linking American policy to the Law of the Sea Treaty and an alliance of democracies became necessary to the administration.

The path was eased by the naive welcome that much of the Washington policy community gave to the changes in Burma, a welcome that is harder for Wilsonians to sustain as the blood of the Rohingyas besmirches the escutcheon of the Burmese democracy movement. At the same time, typical Wilsonian blind reliance on the “arc of history” led the Obama Administration to misjudge the direction of Asian politics as profoundly (if not quite as dramatically) as they misjudged the Arab Spring. Thailand’s coup was a deviation from the shining path of democratic transformation, the sweet young things in the White House fondly believed, and so there would be no geopolitical cost to indulging the national propensity for moralistic lectures and sanctions.

In fact, the situation in Asia is at once more serious and more complex than President Obama and his team ever seem to have understood, and much time has been wasted, and much credibility has been lost, as the Team Obama chased the usual Wilsonian unicorns through the mangrove swamps of Southeast Asia.

It is not at all clear that the incoming Team Trump will rise to the challenge, but one way or another the time has certainly come for the Obama era in Asian policy to come to an end. As in the Middle East and Europe, the next administration must look for ways to change course.

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