The death of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej on Thursday adds a new layer of uncertainty to US President Barack Obama’s faltering “pivot” to Asia less than a month before the Nov. 8 US presidential elections.
The king was important in cementing the long-standing alliance between the US and Thailand after World War II, in a reign that spanned the Vietnam War and the creation of ASEAN, which Washington still considers vital to maintaining its influence in the region.
The king’s death coincides with faltering momentum in Obama’s signature policy of rebalancing the US diplomatic and security focus to the Asia-Pacific region in the face of China’s rapid rise.
The main economic pillar of the rebalance, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, is languishing in the US Congress with no guarantee that Obama will be able to push it through before leaving the presidency to Hillary Rodham Clinton or Donald Trump, both of whom say they oppose the deal.
Clinton, as US secretary of state under Obama from 2009 to 2013, was one of the architects of the policy, but Republican Trump has questioned the extent to which he would maintain the US security commitment to East Asia.
Obama’s efforts to boost security ties with Southeast Asia have come in response to China’s pursuit of territorial claims in the South China Sea, a vital strategic waterway.
However, a torrent of anti-US rhetoric from new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has cast doubt on the US military relationship with Manila just months after Washington reached an agreement on rotating access to bases in the nation.
Other Southeast Asian nations, such as Indonesia and Malaysia, are focused on internal political issues and are avoiding playing any leadership role in ASEAN, while even traditionally reliable regional ally Australia is treading carefully to avoid jeopardizing its economic ties with Beijing.
Thailand was already occupying a back seat in regional affairs following a 2014 military coup seen as a means to maintain stability during the king’s long illness. Thailand is expected to turn further inward during a prolonged mourning period and potentially politically fragile royal succession.
The king’s son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who is expected to become Thailand’s new king, lacks the strong connection to the US of his father, who was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Obama offered condolences to the Thai people and the king’s family, calling the king “a tireless champion of his country’s development.”
Obama’s former top Asia adviser, Evan Medeiros, now at the Eurasia Group, said the mourning process would likely slow a return to democratic government and that the prince was a source of “profound uncertainty.”
“He’s such an unknown, unpredictable figure,” Medeiros said.
US Department of State spokesman Mark Toner said the US and Thailand have been close friends for two centuries.
“Our friendship and our partnership have weathered many challenges — we expect it to continue to grow stronger,” Toner told a regular news briefing.
While the US backs a return to democracy, Toner said it would be “premature... to lay our expectations for the near term” as Thailand mourns.
While Washington condemned the 2014 coup, it has kept security ties with Bangkok, particularly through annual military exercises called Cobra Gold.
“The fact that we have been able to remain closely tethered, and stayed largely on track with Cobra Gold and other cooperative efforts, notwithstanding the military takeover ... is testament to the strong roots we have put down and the work that we’re doing,” US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Daniel Russel said on Wednesday.
Murray Hiebert of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies said much had changed since Obama announced his pivot policy in 2011.
“The king’s death adds to uncertainty in Southeast Asia, a region in considerable flux already. This makes the US rebalance to Asia more difficult because the situation in so many countries is that of ‘wait and see,’” Hiebert said.
The king’s death means the US finds itself having to rely even more on former foe Vietnam for any kind of strategic ballast in the region.
“The Vietnamese are providing the dynamism when it comes to strategic thinking,” US Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius said in Washington on Tuesday. “Indonesia is very internally focused right now ... Thailand is very internally focused and Malaysia has a rolling political crisis.”
“I don’t know exactly what direction the Philippines is headed; Singapore has a lot of strategic thinkers, but it’s a city-state; I don’t think you can really count on Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar to provide the strategic engine for ASEAN,” he said.
However, there appears little prospect for now that Vietnam would be willing to open its doors further to the US military should the deal with the Philippines run into problems, given past animosities and concerns about China.
“I do not expect the Vietnamese calculation to be: ‘Oh, the Philippines is doing whatever it’s doing, let’s race full steam ahead with the United States.’ No, that’s not about to happen,” Osius said. “The Vietnamese have been very measured in the pace at which they have expanded the security relationship.”
Hiebert said Asian nations remain keen on the US pivot, given their worries about China, but the pace was likely to flag further, presenting a tougher task to revive the initiative once Obama leaves office.
“I wouldn’t declare the pivot dead ... I think there’s still quite a bit of interest in the US, but some of the sort of dynamism that we saw earlier about building the region is a little bit diminished right now,” he said.
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