Secretary of State Antony Blinken was forced to cut short his first trip to Southeast Asia this week, scrapping plans to meet with Thai officials due to COVID-19 concerns. That talks with Thailand, specifically, were put on hold is an unfortunate development. Because while Blinken’s agenda for the trip was wide-ranging, the crisis in Myanmar was at the top of his list. And with a nearly 1500-mile border and close ties with Myanmar’s military junta, Thailand has the greatest stake in Myanmar’s future among ASEAN countries. As the world discusses a strategy for addressing the crisis in Myanmar, Thailand’s potential influence — especially with respect to humanitarian access — could prove consequential.
China’s geo-economic influence is empowering the expansion of its security force posture in the Lower Mekong region, which should be of concern to both maritime Southeast Asia and the United States. While Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia—the geographic core of mainland Southeast Asia—are demonstrating resilience and sustaining some strategic autonomy, several trends indicate that their options may be increasingly limited. This report looks at China’s security force posture in these nations, the possible ramifications of that posture, and considerations for balancing U.S. policy and outreach.
In May 2021, Thai security forces were in a three-hour standoff with two Malay-Muslim separatist insurgents in a small remote village in the southernmost border province of Yala. As they stood their ground, the two combatants made video calls to family and friends to bid farewell. Someone began recording one of the calls on another cellphone. Soon, footage of the two men, who were killed in the operation, was circulating on social media.