Thai King’s Death Fuels Uncertainty Over Obama’s Initiative in Asia

Thai officials officially announced the death of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej on Thursday, ending his 70-year rule over the Southeast Asian country. He was considered the longest ruling monarch in the world.

The king, whose rule spanned both the Vietnam War and the creation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), was also a key ally of the United States, particularly during the Cold War which saw many of Thailand’s neighbors taken over by communist forces.

However, his death adds a new layer of uncertainty regarding Obama’s signature policy of refocusing US diplomacy and security resources towards the Asia-Pacific region amid China’s rapid rise.

One of Obama’s primary means of the rebalancing effort is the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Trade Deal, which is struggling to gain momentum in US Congress. It is uncertain whether Obama can successfully pass the deal prior to leaving the presidency to Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, both of whom oppose it.

These efforts, which also include boosting security ties with Southeast Asian nations, come in response to China’s territorial claims on the South China Sea, a key strategic gateway.

Yet despite his efforts, it seems that the initiative has yet to bear fruit, particularly given the anti-American rhetoric coming from newly-elected leader Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines – Washington’s traditional ally in the region – as well as the reluctance of allies such as Australia which is afraid of jeopordizing its economic ties with Beijing.

Thailand, following a 2014 coup which installed a military government, has also taken a back seat in regional affairs given its focus on maintaining internal stability amid the king’s long illness. Given his death, it is expected the Thailand will continue to maintain an inward focus as the nation mourns the loss of its highly revered monarch.

King Bhumibol’s son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who is expected to ascend the throne, lacks the strong connection his father, who was born in Cambridge, Massachussets, had with the United States.

Upon the official announcement of his death, Obama extended his condolences to the Thai people and the King’s family, calling King Bhumibol “a tireless champion of his country’s development”.