A Genealogy of Thai Détente:
: Discourses, Differences and Decline of Thailand's Triangular Diplomacy (1968-1980)

  • Jittipat Poonkham

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis is a genealogy of the Thai conception of détente in the long 1970s (1968-1980), largely based on newly declassified documents in Thailand. It argues that Thai détente marked a history of rupture in Thai foreign policy narrative that was fundamentally different from the hegemonic discourse of anticommunism. By the late 1960s, the latter had become seriously challenged by the deteriorating situation in the Vietnam War and exacerbated by the concomitant prospect of American retrenchment. This sequence of events resulted in discursive anxiety in Thailand and the idea of ‘flexible diplomacy’ was initiated by Foreign Minister Thanat Khoman to cope with the changed environment. Since then, détente emerged as a new diplomatic discourse to normalize relations with the Communist powers in general, and specifically, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The thesis closely examines three episodes of Thai détente, including that of Thanat Khoman (1968-1971), M.R. Kukrit Pramoj and Chatichai Choonhavan (1975-1976), and General Kriangsak Chomanan (1977-1980). It argues that each episode, epitomized by varying concepts of ‘flexible diplomacy’ and ‘equidistance’, developed out of discursive struggles between détente proponents and Cold Warriors. These struggles precipitated attempts to sustain the anticommunist discursive hegemony, which culminated in the military coups in November 1971 and October 1976. The thesis demonstrates how these coups can be interpreted as events born out of foreign policy, and specifically to deter, or at least temper, the course of détente. The thesis also asserts that, throughout the long 1970s, détente in general transformed Thai foreign relations with the Soviet Union and the PRC from the discourses of ‘enemy’ towards ‘friend’. This diplomatic transformation was represented in numerous diplomatic practices, such as ping-pong or sports diplomacy, petro-diplomacy, trade, cultural diplomacy, the establishment of diplomatic relations, and normal state visits. Despite its decline in the early 1980s, the détente discourse remained intact and determined Thai diplomacy toward the Communist powers. Finally, the thesis interrogates the so-called bamboo or bending-with-the-wind diplomacy, which is often treated as an ahistorical ‘tradition’ of Thai diplomacy, and argues that bamboo diplomacy emerged as a new narrative or knowledge only in the early 1970s. It aimed at not only legitimizing Thailand’s changing diplomatic practices, namely détente, but also constituting the metanarrative that could explain and evaluate (the success or failure of) Thai diplomacy in the past. This narrative was then an invented tradition, which was socially and epistemically constructed as a result of the transformative practices of détente in Thailand. By tracing the birth of bamboo diplomacy, the thesis constitutes a history of the present
Date of Award2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Aberystwyth University
SupervisorCharalampos Efstathopoulos (Supervisor) & Matthew Phillips (Supervisor)


  • Thai detente
  • foreign policy
  • 20th century Thailand

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