The increased strain between the United States and Thailand, longtime allies in Southeast Asia, was evident during their 34th annual Cobra Gold military exercise last week. The size of the U.S. contingent was noticeably smaller than a year earlier and the scope of the exercise was limited to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (normally it includes an amphibious landing component). At the exercise’s opening ceremony, the U.S. representative directly commented on the “challenging” times that “has necessitated a modified Cobra Gold.”
The reason for that strain was the American reaction to the Thai military’s coup d’état, which overthrew Thailand’s democratically-elected civilian government in May 2014. From its perspective, the Thai military believed that it had little choice but to do so. The civilian government was, at best, emptying the national coffers with an ill-conceived rice-payment scheme and, at worst, allowing (or even encouraging) the political paralysis that had already gripped the country for six months to continue. Washington responded to the coup by suspending a symbolic $4.7 million in military aid and cancelling a number of joint military and law enforcement activities.
What made the American reaction all the more awkward was that the United States had been trying to bolster its relationship with Thailand. Just a few years ago, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton envisioned that Thailand would be at the core of her Lower Mekong Initiative—a bid to boost American engagement with continental Southeast Asia. Add to that the fact that those in Thailand who backed the coup (including most of its urban middle class and business elites) represent some of the country’s most pro-Western elements. During the Cold War, the Thai military supported U.S. efforts to counter communism in Southeast Asia (when it was decidedly unpopular to do so) and even hosted 27,000 U.S. military personnel at seven of its bases—from which the U.S. air force flew strategic bombing missions over Vietnam. Afterwards, the Thai military cooperated with the United States in its campaigns against drug smuggling and human trafficking in the region.
Hence, these elements of Thai society have seen the American sanctions, regardless of their size, as an affront. They also bristled at the pointed criticism made by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel as an attempt to interfere with the internal affairs of Thailand. Despite earlier Thai military coups, the United States had not treated Thailand this way before.
China has been happy to capitalize on that Thai sentiment. A month after the coup, China assured Bangkok that it would continue to support Thailand’s development and hosted a delegation of senior Thai military officials in Beijing. China Mobile followed with a $900 million investment in a Bangkok telecommunications company. But more importantly, China won approval for a new railway that will connect Kunming and Bangkok, through northeastern Thailand. Once completed, that railway will tie Thailand’s economy (and interests) more closely to China, just as Thailand’s seaports had moved the country closer to the West in an earlier time. Late last year, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the former army chief who led the coup, urged Thais to “stop bickering” and look to China for inspiration. In February 2015, he agreed to strengthen Thailand’s military ties with China over the next five years.
Of course, Prayuth may simply be making the point to the United States that it should not take Thailand for granted. Still, he has opened the door for China to make real inroads into Thailand’s economy and politics. Concerned about growing Chinese influence in Southeast Asia, Japan appears to have rushed into the breach opened by the United States. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe flew to Bangkok early last week to emphasize Japan’s continued interest in Thailand and pledge Japanese support in developing the country’s rail networks and promoting its joint venture with Myanmar, the Dawei Special Economic Zone.
The clarity of Japan’s approach to Thailand stands in contrast to the awkwardness of U.S. policy toward the country. To some extent, that was unavoidable. Washington wants it both ways. It wants to preserve its practical interests in the region. But it also wants to make a principled stand for democracy. The problem for the United States is that its principled stand may come at the expense of its practical interests, particularly its strategic ones (as happened in Egypt during the Arab Spring).
Ultimately, Washington hopes that Thailand’s military will restore the country’s democracy; and American relations with Bangkok can return to what they were before the coup. But doing so essentially leaves the future direction of U.S. policy in the hands of Thai military leaders. Plus, the longer it takes them to restore Thailand’s democracy, the more opportunity China will have to change the facts on the ground. With new trade routes already being built through Laos and Cambodia, the direction of Thai trade (and interests) have already begun to be drawn away from its southern ports to the West towards its northern roads (and future railways) to China.
By levying some minor sanctions against Thailand but carrying on with a scaled-down Cobra Gold exercise, Washington might have believed that it struck the right balance between promoting democratic principles and preserving practical American interests. Perhaps there were few better ways to reconcile the two in this case. But it does demonstrate to Southeast Asia how unreliable the United States can be as a long-term partner. Making principled stands regardless of their practical consequences are a luxury. The United States could afford to make such stands in the unipolar world of the 1990s. But it is less wise to do so today, especially if they leave the United States beholden to events beyond its control or leave it in a weakened state.
 “Cobra Gold 2015 Opening Remarks by W. Patrick Murphy, Chargé d’affaires,” U.S. Embassy, Bangkok, Feb. 9, 2015, http://bangkok.usembassy.gov/020915_cda_cg15remarks.html.
 Prangthong Jitcharoenkul, “Foreign Ministry summons US over visiting diplomat’s comments,” Bangkok Post, Jan. 28, 2015, http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/politics/461168/foreign-ministry-summons-us-over-visiting-diplomat-comments; Amy Sawitta Lefevre, “Thailand warns U.S. to mind its own business over politics,” Reuters, Jan. 28, 2015.
 Amy Sawitta Lefevre, “Thailand boosts military ties with China amid U.S. spat,” Reuters, Feb. 6, 2015.
 Masaaki Kameda, “Abe, Thai junta leader agree to cooperate on railway development, special economic zone,” Japan Times, Feb. 9, 2015.