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China's Diplomatic Success in Thailand & The Philippines

By Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- China is achieving fresh diplomatic successes in Thailand and the Philippines, thanks to security arrangements which blocked Hong Kong's pro-democracy dissident Joshua Wong from visiting Bangkok in October and an unexpected anti-U.S. spiral in Manila impacting President Obama's Asian "pivot."

China eyes Thailand as a modern, southwest overland commercial route to the vast Indian Ocean, where navies from the U.S., India and elsewhere are preparing to counter-balance Beijing's advances.

"Since relations with Myanmar [Burma] soured, China has looked to Thailand for a route from southwest China to the sea, particularly to the Indian Ocean," said Thailand-based political analyst and author Chris Baker, 68, in an interview.

"All of mainland Southeast Asia has come under heavy Chinese influence through trade, investment, and migration. But this is not colonialism. It's just having a very powerful neighbor. "The current military junta in Thailand does not know how to handle criticism from Europe and the U.S., particularly on human rights. The junta's solution is to cozy up to China and to other authoritarian powers," the British Mr. Baker said.

The Indian Ocean -- including the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea -- has not been the focus of news about Beijing's naval ambitions as often as the U.S.-China rivalry in the South China Sea which opens onto the Pacific.

"Most important to China is securing access to the Andaman Sea, in the event the U.S.-controlled Strait of Malacca becomes unavailable to them [Beijing] in a conflict," Benjamin Zawacki, an American Bangkok-based regional analyst, said in an interview.

"Thailand has offered a myriad of ways and means: rails, roads, waterways," said Mr. Zawacki, author of an upcoming book titled, "Thailand: Shifting Ground Between the U.S. and a Rising China."

The vulnerably narrow Strait of Malacca is a strategic international shipping route along Indonesia's Sumatra island, southwest Malaysia, and Singapore where the U.S. maintains a military presence.

The strait links the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea. The Andaman Sea also washes Thailand's southwest coast, where U.S.-Thai submarine warfare drills have quietly taken place, most recently during Guardian Sea naval exercises May.

The U.S. Navy deployed USS San Francisco, a Los Angeles-class nuclear submarine, alongside guided-missile destroyer USS Stethem and a P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft during the drills, according to the Bangkok Post.

The Royal Thai Navy used its torpedo-equipped ships and anti-submarine helicopters. From September 30 to October 2, Thai Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan led a 38-member delegation to Hawaii for a meeting hosted by U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter for defense ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations -- which also includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam.

"We all recommitted our militaries to keeping the region's waterways open and secure, and to help all our nations see more, share more and do more in Southeast Asia's vital waterways," Mr. Carter told reporters on September 30, according to the U.S. Defense Department. Despite occasional criticism by the U.S. State Department over Thailand's human rights abuses, a lack of democracy and other issues, traditional military-to-military relations remain firm between the two non-NATO treaty allies.

Beijing however consistently supported Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's coup-installed military government, allowing China to swell its influence in Bangkok's politics, economy and security. In Southeast Asia, "no country has been so obsequious to China's every request as Thailand," wrote Mike Gonzalez in an October 7 opinion piece published by Forbes magazine.

"The catalyst this time was a particularly egregious case in which Hong Kong democracy leader Joshua Wong was barred from entering Thailand to take part in a panel discussion at a university," said Mr. Gonzalez, a Center for International Studies senior fellow at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.

"It was not a deportation...Chinese authorities just took him away," said Prime Minister Prayuth, defending Mr. Wong's removal on October 5 from Bangkok's international airport. "It was China's reason, so let China handle its own affairs," Mr. Prayuth said.

Mr. Wong was later allowed to address the university forum via Skype, after reportedly agreeing to not to criticize China.

"Sometimes you may feel discouraged with political situations, but please remember that young people around the world, despite their diverse cultures, share the same values of democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law," Mr. Wong told the forum.

In September, Mr. Wong, 19, was elected to Hong Kong's legislative council after fueling an "umbrella revolution" for increased autonomy which failed after a turbulent start two years ago. Some critics and media said the Thai junta's refusal to allow Mr. Wong's entry is the latest embarrassing display of Beijing manipulating Bangkok.

In 2014, Thailand deported to China two Chinese citizens, human rights activists Dong Guangping and Jiang Yefei.

In July 2015, the junta expelled 109 minority Muslim ethnic Turkic Uighurs to China after Beijing alleged those Chinese citizens were linked to alleged terrorism by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. Mr. Prayuth, who seized power in a bloodless 2014 coup, shrugged off condemnation by the U.S. State Department, the United Nations and others which said the Uighurs' expulsion violated international agreements against torture and other protections.

Some senior civilian officials in Thailand's government recently expressed off-the-record dismay with what they perceive as the junta's tendency to skip diplomatic nuances while eagerly submitting to China.

Other concerned Thais fear this country is trying to copy China's restrictions on human rights and free speech. For example, Thailand tried to install a crippling "single gateway" on its Internet access, similar to China's "great firewall," to emphasize sanitized online content.

Boosters of Thai-China relations however are anxious for huge commercial gains through investment projects in Thailand financed by China -- especially in transportation and industrial sectors -- plus discounts on Beijing's weapons sales.

Nearly eight million Chinese tourists visited Thailand in 2015, a 71 percent increase over the previous year, resulting in rapid expansion of facilities, sites and markets.

Criticism however often appears in Thai media and online forums describing some Chinese visitors as rude, crude and insulting. "They are human, with pluses and minuses. They are not just tourists with gulag mannerisms, primitive and unpleasant toilet etiquette and fat wallets," wrote Bangkok Post columnist Anchalee Kongrut earlier this year. Nevertheless, "there is growing discontent among local [Thai] people towards the exploitation of natural resources by Chinese investors," she said.

Many of Thailand's powerful political, financial and intellectual leaders, plus middle-class urbanites, have Chinese ancestors, after centuries of mostly welcomed southern migration. But they occasionally suffered racial or political discrimination, including Thailand's deadly U.S.-backed anti-communist purges during the mid-20th century.

Today, the number of Chinese migrants, students and investors is again increasing, creating a "New Chinatown" in north Bangkok which already enjoys a traditionally prosperous Chinatown across town where old warehouses line the wide Chao Phraya River.

Hundreds of miles away meanwhile, China is trying to maneuver around the Philippines, so Beijing can dominate the South China Sea. Those waters have been used by southeast Chinese ships since before the 13th century Mongol Empire.

The Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia also claim territorial rights over portions of that resource-rich sea.

But in a lucky twist for China on October 7, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte said the CIA wanted to assassinate him. After describing the plot, Mr. Duterte said Manila should tighten military links with Beijing and lessen its reliance on Washington -- turning his relations with the U.S. into a vivid drama.

Mr. Duterte, who became president in June, told President Barack Obama "to go to hell" last week after the U.S. criticized Mr. Duterte's extrajudicial war against illegal drugs, which has left more than 3,600 people dead during the past three months -- including 1,500 killed by police.

"You want to oust me? You want to use the CIA? Go ahead," Mr. Duterte reportedly said in a speech on October 7 after alleging the U.S. was hatching a coup to topple him.

"I'll be ousted? Fine. It's part of my destiny. Destiny carries so many things. If I die, that's part of my destiny. Presidents get assassinated."

In a policy change by the former U.S. colony which had staunchly complied with Washington in exchange for billions of dollars in U.S. aid over several decades, Mr. Duterte began arranging for Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to go to Beijing to seek weapons and improve military relations.

Mr. Duterte also suspended joint patrols with the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea, Mr. Lorenzana said on October 7. "They have been suspended for the time being. They [Washington] know it already," Mr. Lorenzana told reporters.

It is unclear how links between Manila and Beijing will evolve because their South China Sea claims overlap, affecting fishing rights, undersea exploration for natural resources, ability to transit and other concerns.

Thailand professes neutrality in the South China Sea dispute and dreams of being a prestigious moderator. The U.S. uses its superior navy to oppose Beijing's claims while demanding the sea remain open to international shipping without restrictions.

"Candidate [Hillary] Clinton famously announced Obama's 'pivot' to Asia five years ago this month, but it was and remains stillborn," Mr. Zawacki said.

"Time will tell whether, as president, she will have the political will to resurrect it."

***

Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978. He graduated from Columbia University's Journalism School and also received Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "'Hello My Big Big Honey!' Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews," "60 Stories of Royal Lineage," and "Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946." Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the chapter about "Ceremonies and Regalia" in a book published in English and Thai titled, "King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective." Mr. Ehrlich's newest Virtual Reality novel titled, "Sheila Carfenders, Doctor Mask & President Akimbo," is an immersive three-dimensional, one-hour experience with Oculus technology.

His websites are

http://asia-correspondent.tumblr.com

http://www.flickr.com/photos/animists

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