Opposing Viewpoints: Why We Shouldn’t Cut Aid to Thailand

3 years ago ccwa 1

This article is a part of the first installment of our Opposing Viewpoints series, which pits our authors against those of other university publications.  To read the counterargument from Glimpse from the Globe at the University of Southern California, click here.

Soldiers help an elderly person while manning their positions at the Victory Monument, where anti-coup protesters were gathering on previous days, in BangkokOn May 22, 2014, General Prayuth Chan-ocha announced that “in order for the country to return to normality quickly, and for society to love and be at peace again,” the Thai military would replace Yingluck Shinawatra’s coalition as the government of Thailand. The takeover was the culmination of political unrest and continual protests for the better part of a decade. Appointed acting prime minister by a military junta, General Chan-ocha established the Council of Reform and laid out a fifteen-month timeline for restoring Thailand’s democracy.

Within just a few days, the US State Department responded by cancelling more than $3.5 million in military aid to Thailand. American officials cited the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which restricts “assistance to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree”, as justification for terminating the aid.

This law is an anachronism from a bygone era and needs to be cut from our contemporary foreign policy. The policy displays the remnants of a false dichotomy between democracy and dictatorship: the idea that democracies are inherently pro-America, while non-democracies are innately aligned against the United States. If this heuristic was ever accurate, its relevance died with the Cold War.

Military aid serves the indispensable function of building strategic interstate alliances. That is, it serves a fundamentally geopolitical purpose. With the Cold War era of bipolar international politics behind us, geopolitical decisions can no longer be boiled down to simplistic judgments based on political ideology. Instead, we must evaluate the allocation of American military aid through the lens of the current geopolitical climate.

In 2011 the Obama administration announced a so-called “pivot to Asia” (though some officials favored the term “re-balancing”). Subtleties of terminology aside, this policy addressed the growing concern that the United States was neglecting its interests in the Asia-Pacific region. By reallocating its resources to focus more on Asia, the government would supposedly be able to shore up alliances and reaffirm American commitment to Asian-Pacific security.

This would have been all well and good if the pivot had actually happened. However, the United States has repeatedly failed to meet its commitments in Southeast Asia. This neglect was highlighted most conspicuously by President Obama’s absence from the high-profile Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in 2013 due to the government shutdown. Such signals of flagging commitment have given the Chinese government ample opportunity to strengthen ties in the region, pushing out American influence.

In the context of the quiet but very real power struggle between the US and China, it is clear that the United States cannot afford to lose any friends in Southeast Asia – at least not if it wants to maintain its hegemony in the region. As long as the Thai military junta is not directly opposed to America, it makes no sense to alienate the new Thai government by withholding aid.

This restriction of aid is born out of the misconception that all military takeovers betray an ideological tilt, that coups are a sort of personal attack on the ideals of democracy. But I would posit that the majority of coups in Southeast Asia are not motivated by any animosity towards democracy in the abstract, but by a very concrete desire for stability. In situations like Thailand’s, a coup d’état replaces a highly dysfunctional government with a temporary, stopgap measure.

The Thai military has taken what was a highly volatile situation, prone to breeding the kind of radicalism that directly threatens status quo powers like the United States, and provided a stable institutional framework from which to rebuild the country. Far from punishing them for stepping in, we should come to their aid and encourage the development of sound political institutions that will be favorably inclined towards our interests in the region. We need to cultivate alliances in Southeast Asia, and as the proverbial beggar we cannot afford to be choosy based on superficial notions about ideology.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the The Algerian staff or editors.


by Jayan Nair

(photo credit: media.themalaysianinsider.com, imgworld.gmw.cn)