The Battle of Hegemonic Influence in Thailand Between China and the US

Written by Worawut Tubtim


In an attempt to define hegemony (Yilmaz, 2010, p.195) stated “hegemony is the position of having the capability and power to change the rules and norms of international systems based on one’s own motivation and desire”. Furthermore, he goes on to explain, “a hegemon creates or maintains critical regimes to cooperate in the future”. In order to explain how China became a hegemon it Is important to understand how hegemons come to be. In their book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Laclau and Mouffe (1985) suggested that a hegemonic relationship is a result of political discourse.

Political Discourse

In 2014, Thailand found itself under control of the Royal Thai Armed Forces who launched a military coup. This coup proceeded to dissolve the government and the senate, and martial law was put in place. This led to a nationwide curfew, the banning of political gathering, criminalised politicians and anti-coup activists as well as censorship of media (Human Rights Watch, 2015).

It is undeniable that the United States’ regimes are substantially liberal unlike the regimes presented by the Thailand’s military. This is evident when looking at the states’ response to the coup. United States representative John Kerry suggests that unless Thailand returns to a democratic government that respects human rights, the United States may be less co-operative with Thailand(Kerry, 2014).

On the contrary China and Thailand have been strengthening their ties. On December 20th, 2014 Thailand’s junta met with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to discuss multiple bilateral projects (Parameswaran, 2014). Although the contents of the meeting do not matter as it does not contribute to main argument being made in this section, it can be said that this may suggest that Thailand is looking for another hegemon to depend on other than the US. Furthermore, this new hegemons regime is a perfect fit for Thailand’s political conditions. For example the royal family in Thailand lèse majesté which could be said to be violating human rights which has been done before, in the example of the “Thammasat University incident where during a student protest against the regime of Seni Pramoj, the ex-prime minister of Thailand whom was also a member of the royal family, military action was taken against the protesters which resulted in the arrest of seventeen hundred students and the death of forty one other students (Garrett, 1980). China’s vie on human rights has caused conflicts with the U.S. before as its regime focuses less on human rights (Zhou, 2005), therefore it can be suggested that this creates an environment where Thailand could adapt more easily.

Thailands Position in The War on Terrorism

In Southeast Asia Thailand is home to a military facility owned The United States (Crispin, 2009). This suggests the importance of Thailand as a significant region in Southeast Asia for the U.S. also showing why the U.S. is interested in asserting this hegemonic control over Thailand. This is shown again in the most recent event “Cobra Gold”, where despite U.S. policies and democratic the U.S. proceeds to continue their annual military event (Parameswaran, 2016). After the events of September 11th The United States has pressured Thailand to pressure Islamic groups prevalent in southern parts of Thailand (Vaughn et al., 2009). However the governing party at the time the PAD (Peoples Alliance for Democracy) failed to fulfil the requests(Crispin, 2008).

Furthermore in 2008, Thai courts refused to hand Jamshid Ghassemi and Viktor Bout (both illegal arms dealers) to the U.S (BBC, 2009). This suggests that the United States is losing its capability and power to change the rules and norms of Thailand. The most important figure in this conflict is the Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. This is because China and Russia has been building a more co-operative relationship (Ferdinand, 2007), this suggests that their national interests are very similar. This is an indicator that suggests that Thailand has had the motive to change what type of rules and norms it wants to follow, cooperation with Russia rather than the U.S. could suggest that interest which China and Russia represents is more attractive, thus suggests why China may be attractive to Thailand.
Chinas Past Attempts

Taking a look at past relations, the same strategy is used by China during World War II. Furthermore, this influence has once again been contrary to the United States’ rules and norms. Who at the time was definitely a significant influence in Thailand, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation sponsored by the U.S., operating its office in Bangkok and the militant anti-communist political stance of Thailand reflects this (Esman, 2009). The Thai Communist Party whose members consisted of entirely Chinese migrants was outlawed by Thailand. However, the Beijing government found interest in this group and began to fund its operations until 1979. It is extremely important to note that during this time Japanese troops had just occupied Thailand (Reynolds, 1994). Indicating a potential for political discourse. It can be suggested that these chain of events are reoccurring again in the present.
Looking back at Cuba

Much of international relations history is repeated (Schmidt, 1998). In an extreme case we could see Thailand’s interests is fit for a non-democratic regime, much like Cuba. For the case of Cuba when the communist party governed the state a similar pattern can be seen. Cuba, who at the time was denied support from the U.S. turned to a hegemon who’s interests were similar. Cuba turned to the USSR for help (Binns, 1996). More importantly during the same time frame, another party that appears again during this discourse is China. China supplied Cuba with tools to interrupt signals from American radio station Radio y Televisión Martí (Suchlicki, 1999). It can be said that with these actions China was aiming to minimize United States’ soft power in Cuba (Nye, 2004). With the same patterns being followed in Thailand, it can be suggested that the continued and increasing prevalence of Chinese influence is not a result of coincidence but as a result of Thailand being a possible ally to these set of regimes as Thailand’s interests is fit a Chinese oriented regime.

Castro of Thailand

Until Castro, the U.S. was so overwhelmingly influential in Cuba that the American ambassador was the second most important man, sometimes even more important than the Cuban president.

— Earl T. Smith, former American Ambassador to Cuba, during 1960 testimony to the U.S. Senate

In this quote Earl T. Smith identifies Castro as the individual who brought on the discourse in Cuban politics. The source of political discourse in Thailand is very much the same, the coup leader Prayuth Chan O-Cha.

Article 44, in the interim constitution of Thailand translates to states that the leader of the coup, Prayuth Chan O-Cha is entitled to issue any orders as long as it is for “the promotion of love and harmony amongst the people in the nation, or the prevention, abatement or suppression of any act detrimental to national order or security, royal throne, national economy or public administration, whether the act occurs inside or outside the kingdom” furthermore, any issues made are “lawful, constitutional and final” (National Council for Peace and Order, 2014). Therefore, it can be said that Article 44 in the interim constitution is a polar opposite to the U.S. democratic policies.

To conclude, the China’s ability to change the rules and norms of Thailand is the product of political discourse. This is because, despite China’s attempts in the past it has not been successful because Thailand’s internal politics has not experienced such a consequential and abrupt discourse. Furthermore, it is also attributed to the failure of the U.S. to maintain its hegemonic control which can be said to be because of the unforeseen and sudden change in Thailand’s regime.


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