Guest Column

New US Diplomatic Complex in Thailand Aimed at China and Myanmar

By Bertil Lintner 24 January 2022

No one doubts that the American community in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, which consists mostly of NGO workers, missionaries and retirees, needs consular services. But could that be the only reason why a massive, new United States (US) Consulate General is under construction at a cost of US$300 million? Due to be opened in 2023, the buildings of the diplomatic mission will sprawl over no less than 6.6 acres, or 26,709 square meters, of land in a business park on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. In a colorful, online brochure, the US Consul General in Chiang Mai describes the project as “a concrete sign of our long-term commitment to the people of northern Thailand and the future of our partnership” and the text goes on to state that the US Consulate General is “dedicated to serving the local American community or those wishing to travel to the United States”.

While all of that may be accurate, Michael Vatikiotis, a Singapore-based British analyst, argues in an op-ed piece for Nikkei Asia on January 7 that Beijing sees the construction of a such a huge diplomatic complex only 500 kilometers from the Chinese border and even closer to Myanmar and Laos “as an attempt to reinforce existing US intelligence gathering capacity in northern Thailand”.

Covert US activity of that kind would fit into the broader picture of geostrategic rivalries in the region. The rise of China as an economic and political superpower in Asia has been met by the formation of new alliances in the region. The first was the Quad, or the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which was set up in 2007 and brings the US together with Japan, India and Australia. Then, on September 15 last year, the formation of AUKUS, or the Australia-United Kingdom-United States pact, was announced with the specific purpose of coordinating activities in the spheres of “cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and additional underwater capabilities.” Under the terms of the pact, the US and the UK will help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines.

Both pacts are widely seen as efforts to counter China’s influence in the contested South China Sea and the Chinese navy’s increasingly frequent forays into the Indian Ocean. That was not lost on Beijing, who especially condemned the establishment of AUKUS. Only two days after the announcement of the pact, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the alliance risked “severely damaging regional peace… and intensifying the arms race.” He also criticised what he called “the obsolete Cold War… mentality” of the pact’s members and warned them that they were “hurting their own interests.”

In an editorial published in the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece Global Times on September 30, the rhetoric was even blunter and more vitriolic: “The three countries, drawing lines based on ideology, have built a new military bloc that will heighten geopolitical tensions. The international community rejects the Cold War and its divisions, but the US blatantly violates its political claims of not engaging in any new Cold War and gangs up with others to create a small Anglo-Saxon ‘clique,’ putting geopolitical self-interest above international solidarity. This is a typical Cold War mentality”.

The editorial also warned of the danger of an escalating arms race: “The move will spur regional countries to accelerate the development of military capabilities, and even seek to break the nuclear threshold and increase the risk of military conflict. The US, on the one hand, hands out sanctions and suppresses some countries to pressure them not to develop nuclear capabilities, while on the other hand flagrantly transferring nuclear technologies to non-nuclear states. This is a typical double standard”.

The Global Times editorial did not expand on the reference to the possibility of nuclear proliferation, and Australia will certainly not become a nuclear power just because it is about to acquire nuclear-powered submarines. But the harsh rhetoric shows how concerned China’s government is, and that the battlelines in the new Cold War are becoming clearer. China is seen as the enemy of a range of countries which consider themselves guardians of democratic values. Needless to say, there are also competing economic interests between China and its adversaries. An increasingly affluent Asia is a huge market for consumer goods and the region is rich in natural and mineral resources which many countries are eager to exploit.

That competition can be seen also on land and it’s no coincidence that Chiang Mai has been chosen as a strategic listening post in the region. And in that regard, it appears that old ghosts have come alive again. The Americans first set up a diplomatic mission in Chiang Mai in 1950, and it was then mainly an intelligence station that coordinated support for nationalist Chinese, Kuomintang, forces that had retreated into Shan State in eastern Myanmar after their defeat in the Chinese Civil War. A string of bases was established just across the border in Shan State and, to the north, along the Chinese border. The tiny airstrip at Möng Hsat opposite Thailand’s Chiang Rai province was transformed into a formidable air base capable of receiving C-46 and C-47 transport planes, which brought in arms, ammunition, and medical supplies. This dramatic build-up was a joint venture between the Republic of China’s Kuomintang government, which still controlled the island of Taiwan, and the US security authorities to encircle and try to reconquer the Chinese mainland. But the effort failed miserably. The Shan State-based “secret Kuomintang” army attempted on no less than seven occasions in the early 1950s to invade neighboring Yunnan Province in China, but was repeatedly driven back across the border.

Then came the wars in Indochina, and the US consulate in Chiang Mai oversaw the gathering of human as well as signals intelligence in the region. Local agents were sent across the border and the Americans together with the Thais had an extensive network of listening posts in northern Thailand. The main such facility was located at Ramasun, 20 kilometers south of Udon Thani in northeastern Thailand. That base was first established in 1966 but then as an outpost for the main facility in Bangkok. In 1970, it was upgraded to an AN/FLR-9 Circular Disposed Antenna Array (CDAA) station, a large, circular array of Wullenweber antennas commonly referred to by the nickname “Elephant Cage” because its shape resembled an elephant kraal. The Ramasun facility picked up radio traffic from Laos, southern China and North Vietnam and monitored Chinese military movements in the region. Most importantly, it served as a military intelligence terminal for communications between the US and its various intelligence sites in Southeast and East Asia.

A similar signals intelligence facility was established near Lampang, 108 kilometers south of Chiang Mai, for the specific purpose of monitoring radio traffic in northern Myanmar and Yunnan. American Chinese language experts translated intercepted messages into English, and Burmese-speaking Shans translated messages in Burmese into Thai and English. A major target at that time was the China-supported Communist Party of Burma (CPB). There was always the possibility of a linkup between the CPB and the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT), which would open a direct route for arms flowing down from China and into Southeast Asia. China’s plan at the time was to use Myanmar as a springboard to reach not only the CPT but, at least until the 1960s, communist movements in Malaya (now Malaysia) and Indonesia.

The “Elephant Cage” at Ramasun was officially dismantled in 1976, a year after the end of the Indochina wars and, in 1975, Thailand also switched recognition to the People’s Republic of China from the Republic of China (Taiwan). The Americans withdrew and the Thais took over operation of the Ramasun and Lampang facilities. Over the years, the “Elephant Cages” became obsolete and, in May 1986, the very last of them, in Alaska, was decommissioned. Today, there are more advanced and sophisticated ways of monitoring movements in cyberspace, as well as on the ground.

The current US mission in Chiang Mai is located in old buildings overlooking the banks of the Ping River. Some of them were built over a hundred years ago and then called the Chedi Ngam Palace, or the Beautiful Pagoda Palace. The compound once served as the residence of the last ruler of northern Thailand, Chao Kaew Nawarat, who died in 1939. After that it became government property and, eleven years later, the Americans moved in and turned it into a consulate. But it is important to remember that it remained a consulate until 1986 and only then became a Consulate General, or a proper foreign service mission. Before 1986, it was effectively an intelligence station, although it also provided consular services.

It is anybody’s guess what roles the new US Consulate General will play when it opens its doors next year. Apart from the obvious — that people will go there to get visas, for cultural events and to visit its libraries — intelligence gathering will most certainly be a top priority. Myanmar-watching will remain one of the consulate general’s main tasks, albeit in a different context as China no longer exports revolution. But Beijing’s expanding economic empire requires political protection and therefore also influence in its neighboring countries. Myanmar is right there, between Thailand and China, and the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor is China’s only direct access to the Indian Ocean.

Already in 2017, China’s then Consul General in Chiang Mai, Ren Yisheng, talked about Beijing’s multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative, at the city’s university. Two years later, Ren attended a similar conference in Chiang Rai with the emphasis on development in the so-called Greater Mekong Sub-region, which includes parts of southern China, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam. Even China appears to have made Chiang Mai and their Consulate General there a base for their plans for the region.

Chinese boats with armed police, seen by this correspondent, are also now for the first time in history venturing down the Mekong River, almost as far as the riverine junction where Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet. That may not be perceived as a major threat to the region, but it is nevertheless a new development that China’s adversaries would be keen to monitor. And while the US has strongly condemned last year’s February 1 coup in Myanmar, China is cozying up to the generals. In August, China transferred US$6 million to Myanmar to be used for projects and programs within Beijing’s Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Framework, seemingly a tiny gesture but important in the broader scheme of things. Then there are the insurgencies inside Myanmar where China maintains close links with the United Wa State Army while its rival, the Restoration Council of Shan State, receives most of its supplies from Thailand.

The new Cold War may not yet be as hot as the previous one sometimes was, but it is clear that the Americans and their Quad and AUKUS allies are building a bulwark against China and that the construction of a new US Consulate General in Chiang Mai is part of that strategy. But we can only wait and see what that means for the region — and especially for troubled and vulnerable Myanmar. There’s still a long way to go before we could see a return to the open confrontations of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. But, once again, Myanmar may well find itself in the midst of a geopolitical storm.

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