America’s China Policy Is Not Working
The Dangers of a Broad Decoupling
The implications of an uncertain ceasefire in Indochina and the possible beginning of separate political dialogues in Laos and Cambodia have again focused attention on Washington's alliance with Thailand, the only nation on the mainland of Southeast Asia which the United States is bound by treaty to defend. Significantly too, Thailand faces an increasingly serious, if not yet critical, insurgency. No matter how the situation in each of the three Indochina states is finally resolved, President Nixon's decisions on Thailand in the next year will largely determine the future course of American policy and involvement in Southeast Asia during the decade ahead.
Since the end of World War II, a series of American administrations has operated on the principle that an anti-Communist Thailand, friendly to Washington, was an asset, if not a necessity, to the strategic and economic interests of the United States in Asia. This principle was converted into a mutual defense treaty in the SEATO pact of 1954, and in 1962, as a result of the Laotian crisis of that year, this commitment was enlarged by interpretation in the Rusk-Thanat accord, so that the United States agreed to defend Thailand unilaterally if SEATO collectively should fail to heed a Thai call for assistance.
During the last eight years, the commitment has been most visibly expressed by the use of Thailand, with willing Thai acquiescence, as the great rear area for the United States in its prosecution of the Indochina War. Thailand has served not only as the staging area for the majority of air strikes against North Vietnam and Laos, but as the logistics and headquarters base for the semi-covert war in Laos and, to a lesser extent, in Cambodia. The massiveness of the American air war would have been extremely difficult and far more costly to mount, and the land war in Laos an impossibility, if it had not been for the Thai sanctuary. And during the last 18 months the need for the Thai bases became crucial as the military situation in Laos deteriorated and as President Nixon was forced to rely more heavily on U.S. airpower, rather than Vietnamization, as the military substitute for the withdrawal of half a million U.S. troops from South Vietnam. As a result, while the Guam doctrine enabled Nixon to effect dramatic withdrawals from Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and South Vietnam, he was forced (after having reduced the U.S. presence in Thailand from a high point of 48,000 in 1968 to 32,000 in 1971) at the beginning of North Vietnam's Easter offensive this last spring to reopen one closed airbase at Takli, to open a completely new base at Nam Pong, and to re-introduce nearly 18,000 troops transferred from South Vietnam and the United States. Consequently, there are at present nearly 50,000 American troops in Thailand, a greater number than in any other Asian country including South Vietnam. These forces fly U.S. aircraft ranging from B-52s to a helicopter squadron assigned to the Army Attaché in Laos, and are stationed not only at eight Royal Thai Air Force bases constructed by the United States, but also at a half-dozen smaller installations including the National Security Agency base at Ramsum as well as the headquarters of the U.S. military assistance group in Bangkok.
Although the President's Assistant for National Security Affairs, Henry Kissinger, has said that the Indochina peace settlement excludes any restrictions on U.S. forces in Thailand or the Seventh Fleet, a ceasefire in Indochina is bound to stimulate a debate on the American commitment to Thailand. For the last eight years, Washington's Thai policy has simply been the tail on the Vietnam dog; economic and military aid, insurgency advice, the narcotics control program, all have to a considerable extent been subjugated to the need for airbases and the desire for Thai support for the war in Laos. While there will be an interim phase when the Thai bases will still be necessary (particularly those connected to the ground war in Laos), it now appears that the United States is heading toward a period when our policy can be more directly responsive to our own and to Thai long-range interests. This transformation will take place slowly but surely, but a substantial withdrawal of U.S. forces in Thailand is all but a certainty. The crux of the policy issue for Washington will be whether the United States should continue to keep bases, planes and a modicum of men in Thailand, and therefore on the mainland of Southeast Asia.
Secretary of Defense Laird, who declared in late September that "we will continue to use the Thai bases for some time to come," has fired the first round in a verbal debate that is bound to grow in intensity. Proponents of a strong military presence believe that such a presence would draw the line at the Mekong; militarily guarantee the peace settlement in Indochina ; provide training and an advance base against the Thai insurgency; and prevent the Thai leadership from doing an abrupt volte face toward China. Advocates of a complete military withdrawal argue that a continuing military presence would impede a permanent Sino-American détente ; encourage rather than deter the insurgency, both by giving the movement an "imperialistic" enemy and by serving as a target for attacks against American bases; and be worthless, since the Communist challenge to an Indochina settlement will probably be political rather than military.
Any examination of an evolving American policy toward Thailand must focus on three main areas : the insurgency, the search for détente with China and North Vietnam, and the effectiveness and inclinations of the Thai ruling group led by Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn and General Praphas Charusa-thien.
Ever since the late Chinese foreign minister, Marshal Chen-yi, remarked at a New Year's Day party in Peking in 1965 that there would be a guerrilla war in Thailand before the end of that year, expert opinion, both Thai and American, has fluctuated over the seriousness of the Thai guerrilla movement. At first many Americans, mesmerized by the Vietnam War and by the threat posed by Chinese people's wars in general, spoke of Thailand as "our next Vietnam." When the insurgency failed to expand as rapidly as expected, the conventional wisdom swung back to the view that Buddhism, the monarchy, a homogeneous language and culture and the lack of a serious land tenure problem made Thailand immune to Communist insurgency. Within the last 18 months, however, this attitude has once again been under revision as the Communists have demonstrated their ability to regenerate and expand.
Although signs of rural discontent were noted in the 1950s, the genesis of the Thai insurgency in the early 1960s centered around two events : the ascendancy in China of the late Marshal Lin Piao, who believed that China's influence in Asia would come through the spread of people's war, and the introduction of U.S.-paid Thai soldiers in Laos, who were supported by air strikes launched from Thailand.
The insurgents, then as now, concentrated on three areas of the kingdom- inhabited by racially different peoples, alike in that they were not sharing in the economic prosperity of Bangkok and the agriculturally rich central plain surrounding the capital. These regions were the North, where Burma and Laos meet and where the Meo and other tribesmen have little affection for the lowland Thai ; the Northeast, bordering Laos, whose population of nine million is not only racially more akin to the Lao than to the Thai, but has a per capita income estimated at only $83 per year compared to a $180 national average; and the South, bordering Malaysia, with a Muslim population of one million and irredentist leanings toward Malaysia.
In retrospect, it seems clear that the first bands of insurgents surfaced before they had constructed an adequate political base, partly because they wished to prove their ideological purity at a time when the great proletarian Cultural Revolution was sweeping through Chinese-dominated Communist parties, but more importantly because China and North Vietnam wanted to serve notice on Bangkok and Washington that the use of Thailand as a forward base against China and North Vietnam would not be without its costs. Because of an unusually active suppression effort by the Thai army commander in the Northeast, the insurgency appeared to have been nipped in the bud. Hundreds of insurgents were killed, others were captured or surrendered, and insurgent strength seemed to have plateaued out at under 1,500 men. Many observers believed that the insurgency would quarantine itself because its limited appeal was only to non-Thai who lived far from Bangkok, and that it posed no real threat to the central government.
Unhappily, this has not proved to be the case. Learning from their mistakes, the insurgents have quietly endeavored to build a secure political base while simultaneously making themselves less dependent on their patrons in Peking and Hanoi. The training center for Thai insurgents has been moved, first from the Hanoi area to the Laotian panhandle, and finally last year to the Phu Pan mountains themselves, in Northeast Thailand. Vietnamese instructors who ran the school in Laos and Hanoi have trained Thai substitutes. As a result of an intensive effort at political proselytizing, insurgent strength has increased from under 1,500 in 1965 to approximately 5,300 in 1972. The Thai Communist Party has now secured two major base areas, one in the Phu Pan mountains and one along the Laotian border in the North ; in these areas Communist shadow governments have been created in villages and Thai government officials must be accompanied by an army unit. Perhaps more pertinent to the longer-range success of the movement, the insurgents have succeeded in making tentative inroads on the central plain and in recruiting ethnic Thai.
Despite claims by some Thai government leaders that China and North Vietnam have provided active leadership for the insurgency-including the claimed resupply of the guerrillas by night-time helicopter flights of the People's Liberation Air Force-evidence suggests that the assistance of North Vietnam and China has been cautiously limited to diplomatic and propagandistic support and to the training of a few score Thai cadre in China and North Vietnam. Although the guerrillas have been equipped with a few AK-47S, RPGs and mortars, the observer is struck by the restraint with which both patrons have supplied weaponry to the insurgency.
While no conclusive studies have yet been completed on the division of labor or the differences of opinion between Hanoi and Peking, it appears that the Northern insurgency is wholly a Chinese-supported operation while the North Vietnamese have more influence in the Northeast, and that China has handled the propaganda and front activities while North Vietnam has provided more of the training as well as the logistics for moving supplies into the Northeast.
It is difficult to measure the degree of cordiality between Hanoi and Peking in this joint venture, but it is obvious that each to some degree sees the Thai insurgency as being in its own, rather than the other's, sphere of influence. Peking's support of the Thai insurgents and of the Pathet Lao in western Laos is certainly to some extent an effort to checkmate the expansion of Tonkinese influence, while Hanoi would like to believe that it has a historical right of suzerainty over Laos and Cambodia as well as a special interest in an insurgency designed to make trouble for its traditional enemies, the Thai. One evidence of divergence is that while the Thai Communist Party rear apparatus is to be found in Peking, several leading Thai dissidents connected with the Thai Patriotic Front apparently decamped in 1969 to Hanoi, where they have remained active. And in 1972, at a time when Peking had received a Thai emissary and dropped its denunciations of the Thai leaders on Radio Peking, Hanoi proceeded to plot and launch two sapper attacks against the major air bases at Ubon and Udorn.
The United States and Thailand have long reacted quite differently to the growing insurgency. Even during the Kennedy administration, the United States clearly believed that the guerrillas, left untended, would eventually pose a threat to the central government, which could and probably would call for armed American assistance. Acting on this premise, the United States moved with some urgency to assist Thailand while the problem was still manageable, by increasing the suppression capability of the army with training and new equipment while at the same time devoting the major share of American economic aid to projects such as road-building designed to improve the quality of life in contested areas. The results have proven largely disappointing. The insurgency has flourished in those very areas where American aid has been most abundant, and neither the Thai army nor police seems to have learned the art of counterinsurgency warfare. This spring, for instance, the Thai army conducted its first divisional operation at a cost of $3.5 million. No coördination was established with local authorities, no provision was made for refugees, little intelligence was collected beforehand and no insurgents were killed while the Thai suffered 50 casualties. Whether through indifference to the threat or belief that it could be negotiated away if it became serious, the Thai government has responded to it lackadaisically; the government has shown little appreciation of the political nature of its opponents. While the insurgency is still nowhere near that critical point where everything the government does tends to exacerbate rather than suppress the insurgents, a continued demonstration of government incapacity could be extremely dangerous.
As its attitude toward insurgency demonstrates, the Thai leadership has always been more preoccupied with dangers from without than from within the kingdom. Although the Thai have always worried about China's intentions, the régime believes its serious security threats lie closer at hand in Laos and Cambodia, specifically in the Mekong valley of Laos and in the two former Thai provinces lost to Cambodia at the end of World War II. The principal aim of Thailand's security strategy since the war has been to prevent a Tonkinese Communist presence in either of these regions, and to that end the Thai have been willing to deploy troops, albeit secretly, in Laos, to allow their country to be used as the main base for the air war, and by 1967 to send troops to South Vietnam. Much has been made of the mercenary nature of these deployments, but the fact is that the Thai have been prepared to fight, even outside their own borders, the nation they consider to be their primary enemy, North Vietnam. Although the performance of the Thai Black Panther Division, which fought in Vietnam from 1968 to 1971 at a cost of several million dollars in American assistance, was debatable, the effectiveness and valor of the U.S.-supported Thai contingents in Laos cannot be challenged.
The question is whether the Thai conception of the North Vietnamese is correct and whether they have the same intentions toward Thailand as they do toward South Vietnam, or even Laos. In sending troops to Laos, and later to Vietnam, were the Thai actively provoking trouble from Hanoi that could otherwise have been avoided? As long as the United States remained the paramount power in Southeast Asia and remained committed to victory in South Vietnam, the Thai had no reason to conduct such a self-examination. President Johnson's decision to stop the bombing of North Vietnam in 1968 and President Nixon's proclamation of the Guam Doctrine along with the beginning of American withdrawal from Vietnam in 1969 prodded the Thai to examine whether their security interests could be protected, at less cost in blood, by pursuing a détente with their two adversaries, North Vietnam and China.
Thus, private feelers were conveyed to Hanoi over a period of time by Thanat Khoman, Thai Foreign Minister since 1958. In October 1970 these produced a reconvening of the Thai-North Vietnamese Red Cross talks. Ostensibly the meetings, which lasted for seven months, were to discuss the repatriation of the 40,000 Vietnamese refugees in the Northeast, but Thanat has privately confirmed, since he left office, that the outlines of a possible accommodation were discussed. Although the talks adjourned in public disagreement, Thailand subsequently announced a complete withdrawal from South Vietnam and, whether by negotiation or by an evolving de facto situation, has studiously declined, despite U.S. and Khmer pleas, to become significantly involved in defending Cambodia. Aside from training a minimal number of Cambodian soldiers and providing a handful of pilots, the Thai have done nothing to halt the military erosion of Marshal Lon Nol's position, and despite the fact that both North Vietnam and Thailand have large numbers of troops on both sides of the Thai-Cambodian border, neither side has strayed across these lines.
Furthermore, Thanat began tentative discussions with the Chinese in Paris, using as go-betweens the French and former Thai Prime Minister Pridi Phanomyong, who had previously been in exile in China (and was at one time the leader of the OSS-sponsored Free Thai movement). In arranging this, Thanat, who is fundamentally a technician without a power base of his own in the Thai system, faced stiff opposition. Many in the cabinet argued that Thanat should not talk peace before Peking had stopped supporting the insurgency. They were also seriously concerned about the effect of a Bangkok-Peking thaw on Thailand's three million Chinese. Even those Thai who believed in the wisdom of a rapprochement wondered about Peking's intentions in resuming the construction of a road in Laos ending 20 miles from the Thai border. (This road is indeed an enigma to observers. Some interpret it merely as a Chinese effort to have a moderate counterbalance to Hanoi's influence in Laos-and it may be significant that the road has never been bombed by the American air force.)
On November 17, 1971, domestic developments in Thailand brought an end to Thanat's probes. Prime Minister Thanom and Deputy Prime Minister Praphas, citing a concern over China policy among several other problems, staged a classic Thai political maneuver by running a coup against their own government. Thanat was dismissed, and with his removal from the scene and the subsequent failure to appoint a foreign minister, most observers believed that the door of the two-track policy, if not slammed entirely shut, was barely ajar.
The case proved to be quite otherwise. General Praphas, sensing the importance of the China question to Thailand's future as well as the personally lucrative aspects of trade, set about placing the reins of Thailand's China policy in his own hands. Seven months after the "coup," Praphas dispatched a Thai table-tennis team to Peking, accompanied by an Under-Secretary of Commerce, Dr. Prasitthi Kanchanawat, who is a Thai Chinese, expert on China and a confidant of Praphas. Although labeled an unofficial visitor in Peking, Dr. Prasitthi was received as a state guest, and in a 45-minute meeting with Chou En-lai, directly inquired about Chinese support for the insurgency. According to Dr. Prasitthi's public account, the Chinese Premier replied that although China supported just struggles for independence, she did not interfere in other nations' internal affairs. The Premier went on to send greetings to Thai government leaders and, most important, to King Bhumibol Adulyadej-thus strongly suggesting a degree of recognition of the government.
It is too early to tell what effect this friendly meeting has had on the insurgency, but Radio Peking, although not the Voice of the People of Thailand, has stopped criticizing the "Thanom-Praphas clique." This has been enough for Thanom and Praphas to send Dr. Prasitthi to the Canton Trade Fair and then to Peking for another round of informal talks with China's leaders. As a result, trade agreements between the two nations are in the making and diplomatic relations may well be negotiated before the end of 1973.
With the exception of the initiative toward China, the government of Field Marshal Thanom and General Praphas (the latter in many ways the more powerful of the two) seems to be slowly drifting into a morass of inefficiency and indecisiveness. Compared with her neighbors, Thanom and Praphas have kept Thailand largely free from the destruction of war while at the same time doubling the nation's gross national product. But after nearly a decade in office, longer than any other Southeast Asian government with the exception of North Vietnam, the Thai have begun to wonder whether this team, both nineteenth-century traditionalists, has the energy, perception and ideas to cope with Thailand's future problems.
Their November 1971 "coup" ended a three-year experiment with a constitution and parliamentary rule, the fifth such experiment since the absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932. Explaining their action, Thanom and Praphas cited unease not only over the expulsion of Taiwan from the United Nations, but over insurgency, law and order, and the country's economic problems. Although the "coup" and the application of martial law were partially triggered by the demands of legislators from their own party for bribes to vote with the government, it was difficult to see how the weak parliament, where there was no ministerial responsibility and whose vote was not binding on the government, posed any insurmountable obstacle to government decisions. In effect, the "coup" was designed to give the appearance of change and to meet the problems facing Thanom and Praphas rather than the problems facing the country. The cabinet was dissolved and replaced with a 26-man National Executive Council (NEC) with Thanom as chairman and Praphas as deputy chairman. If there was disappointment among the Thai, it was not over the coup, but over the same old signatures at the bottom of the proclamation.
The first year of NEC rule has confirmed this judgment. Although one of the main purposes was to increase government efficiency and decentralize decision-making, the NEC format has proven to be, if anything, more ineffective than the old system, with issues ranging from relations with the United States to the question of whether after-hours drinking should be allowed at Bangkok's international airport, coming before the full NEC for discussion. In a fluid Asian international situation, Thailand still has no foreign minister and no coherent foreign policy. And aside from the China initiative, the so-called new administration has done little more than order the well-publicized execution of a score of criminals, establish a series of blue laws limiting drinking hours and order nightclubs and massage parlors to close at midnight. The country's increasingly difficult economic and social problems have not been confronted.
Economically, the national growth rate dropped in 1971 from nine to six percent, and the forecast for 1972 is the same; the trade deficit, although partially offset by tourism and the spending from the American build-up, is now running at $164 million for the first six months of this year. And a drought this year in the Northeast will cause a major shortage of rice, one of Thailand's main sources of foreign revenue.
In addition to these important problems, Marshal Thanom and General Praphas must at some point face a variety of complex long-range situations. The World Bank has criticized the third Five Year Plan as being underfinanced and vague in its aims. Unless a birth-control program is initiated, Thailand will find itself, by the end of the decade, consuming all of the rice it produces and in need of another exportable product. There is an ever-increasing disparity between the rich and the poor, particularly between Bangkok, where per capita income has increased rapidly, and areas such as the Northeast, where the gain has been very little. If future stability is to be accomplished, the government must find a way to reduce rampant corruption and to create a civil service and police force that are effective throughout the country.
Given the apparent inability of the present government to confront and manage these problems, some experts have predicted that there will shortly be pressures for drastic change within the Thai élite-specifically among those young members of the civil service, the military establishment, and the academic and business communities who consider themselves modernizers. Some diplomats believe such pressure could conceivably culminate in a group of younger army officers seizing power or, at the very least, in the return of a hard-driving government in the style of the late Field Marshal and Prime Minister Sarit Tha-narat. Any such thoughts must remain by their nature deeply conspiratorial and hidden from public view; as far as can be determined, no young Nassers are in sight. Indeed, in accepting a second, one-year extension of his retirement this July, Chairman Thanom signaled his intent that the future should be more of the same, a nineteenth-century kingdom minding its elephants.
The virtual stagnation of the government, its ambivalence toward insurgency, the nascent rapprochement with China, and the hint of at least a limited accommodation with North Vietnam over Cambodia-these factors all suggest that Washington should seriously consider a complete military withdrawal from Thailand, leaving behind only a military assistance group of perhaps 1,000 men. If the Laos peace talks make any progress at all, the funding of Thai mercenaries in northern Laos should also be ended. Residual air power in Southeast Asia can be the responsibility of the Seventh Fleet's carriers.
Such a policy, which would unfold over a one- or two-year period after a ceasefire in Indochina, could in no way be viewed as a relinquishing of the American commitment to Thailand. One tends to forget that, with the exception of the 1962 Laos crisis, there were no U.S. forces in Thailand from 1954 to 1964, even though the United States was already committed by treaty to Thailand's defense. The dangers of any Thai government reversing the policies of the last 30 years and allying itself with China remain largely hypothetical. With Bangkok one of the commercial hubs of Asia, with many senior members of the government and army directly sharing in these business profits, and with the philosophical aversion of the Thai élite to any form of communism, such a turnabout seems unlikely.
Far from placing Thailand in a more hostile environment, a lower American profile would benefit both Washington and Bangkok. The Thai Communist movement has always claimed loudly in its propaganda to villagers that the Thanom-Praphas government is the lackey of American imperialists. The dismantling of bases and the American presence would rob the guerrilla movement of this imperialist bogey man, while simultaneously ensuring that the bases would not become targets for the insurgents and threaten to drag the United States into another war.
This does not mean, of course, that the United States should reduce its counterinsurgency advice to the Thai government, or, in fact, change the present emphasis of the counterinsurgency program from its civilian-police- military orientation to a more wholly army operation, as the Thai military and the American Defense Department have been urging recently. It is obvious that a policy of détente stands a far greater chance of success if the Thai government's strategy to combat the insurgency is successful. Conversely, if the Thai government looks increasingly vulnerable, neither China nor North Vietnam will have as much reason to pursue state-to-state relations with Thailand. While the American counterinsurgency advisory effort has not to date proved enormously successful, the actual advice that American civilian and military advisers have offered has been sound; if the U.S. Embassy had no further reason to pull its punches because of the need to retain air bases, it could talk frankly to the Thai for the first time about their counterinsurgency shortcomings.
Perhaps more importantly, while it is too much to hope that North Vietnam will give up all efforts to support the insurgency, a condition of no American air bases in Thailand, aimed at North Vietnam, would weaken Hanoi's rationale for pursuing an active revolutionary policy against Thailand and strengthen the hand of the moderates in Hanoi who would be arguing that North Vietnam's resources should go for reconstruction rather than revolution. Similarly, a private diplomatic message to Hanoi that the speed of the American withdrawal from Thailand would be affected by the pace of the North Vietnamese pullout from the panhandle of Laos could be an added inducement to the North Vietnamese for the fulfillment of their overall Indochina treaty commitments.
At the same time that these essentially American-North Vietnamese moves were beginning, Thailand and the other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations should rapidly open the membership of ASEAN to all four of the Indochina states, including North Vietnam. Such an association- favored by many Southeast Asian leaders-could end a 30-year period of confrontation and open channels of communication in which disagreements were openly aired by all nations in the area, without resort to big-power patrons.
China, the United States and Thailand may also discover that they have a common tacit interest in working to ensure that Laos and Cambodia have governments which are not satellites of Hanoi. Neither China nor Thailand wants a powerful Hanoi-dominated or Russian-influenced Indochina. A settlement in Vietnam is sure to accentuate these Peking-Hanoi differences over Cambodia and Laos. In this new situation, it may be possible to achieve by diplomacy what could not be won by war-Cambodia and Laos in non- Communist, non-Tonkinese hands, reasonably friendly to Thailand. If the United States and Thailand succeed in working with others to these ends, the prospects will be fairly bright for Thailand remaining a prosperous, non-Communist, freely trading nation.
There will be some military and governmental leaders in Bangkok who will agonize over the end of Thailand's dependence on America, and consider the search for détente with North Vietnam and China extremely difficult. But the initial steps toward rapprochement with Peking and accommodation with Hanoi are in an old Thai tradition of flexible pragmatism, going back hundreds of years. The Thai who have been responsible for them, including such apparent opposites as General Praphas and Thanat Khoman, realize that safety can be found in diplomacy as well as on the battlefield. It is such men that American policy should seek to strengthen.