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  • Writer's pictureGeopolitics.Λsia

Bamboo in the Wind: The Unknown Knowns

Updated: May 13, 2023

For decades, Thailand’s foreign policy has been known (or rather, notorious) for its flexibility and adaptability. This has been encapsulated in the phrase “bamboo in the wind,” which suggests that Thai diplomacy is like bamboo swaying in the wind, able to bend and twist in response to changing circumstances. But where did this phrase come from? And what does it really mean?

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The origin of “bamboo in the wind” is not entirely clear. Some have attributed it to an ancient Siamese proverb, while others have suggested that it was coined by Western observers of Thai politics. However, the earliest systematic use of the phrase can be traced back to a 2002 article by Arne Kislenko titled “Bending with the Wind: The Continuity and Flexibility of Thai Foreign Policy.”

In his article, Kislenko argues that Thailand’s foreign policy is characterized by a combination of continuity and flexibility. On the one hand, Thai diplomacy has been guided by certain core principles, such as non-alignment, respect for sovereignty, and a focus on regional cooperation. On the other hand, Thai leaders have been adept at adapting to changing circumstances, whether it be shifts in the international balance of power or domestic political upheavals.

Kislenko’s use of “bamboo in the wind” was intended to capture this dual nature of Thai foreign policy. Like bamboo, Thai diplomacy is able to bend and sway in response to external pressures, while remaining firmly rooted in its core principles. This flexibility has allowed Thailand to navigate through some of the most tumultuous periods of modern history, from the Cold War to the rise of China.

However, the phrase “bamboo in the wind” also highlights a certain ambiguity in Thai foreign policy. The very fact that Thai diplomacy is so adaptable means that it can be difficult to predict or understand. Kislenko may reflect the idea that, “the continuity and flexibility of Thai foreign policy may, paradoxically, create confusion and uncertainty among its partners and competitors.”

In this sense, “bamboo in the wind” can be seen as an example of the “unknown knowns” that former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld missed in his famous quote: “As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” He put it separately later as of the video has illustrated. Therefore, “unknown knowns” refers to things that we thought we knew but may not actually know. While the phrase “bamboo diplomacy” has become widely accepted and taken for granted, its exact meaning and origins remain somewhat mysterious.

Kislenko’s article examined Thailand’s diplomatic strategy in the context of the Cold War, and how the country was able to maintain its independence and neutrality by being flexible and adaptable in its foreign policy. The phrase “bamboo in the wind” was used to describe this strategy, as the bamboo plant is able to bend and sway with the wind, but never breaks.

However, the roots of this diplomatic strategy can be traced back further, to King Chulalongkorn of Siam (now Thailand), who believed that “a flexible tree does not break in a storm”. This belief was influenced by the Thai folktale of either “Srithanonchai” in the central folktale or “Siang Miang” in the northeast folktale, which tells the story of a clever and adaptable hero who overcomes adversity through his wits and flexibility.

But the true origins of Thailand’s diplomatic strategy lie in the country’s unique historical and geopolitical position. During the Cold War, Thailand was a key ally of the United States, but also maintained close relations with China and other non-aligned nations. This was partly due to Thailand’s strategic location in Southeast Asia, which made it a valuable partner for both the US and China in the region.

In 1971, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made a secret visit to China to negotiate a rapprochement between the US and China, and to forge a strategic alliance to counter the Soviet Union. As part of this strategy, Kissinger sought to reassure Thailand and other US allies in the region that their interests would not be overlooked in the new US-China alliance.

The phrase “bamboo in the wind” was thus coined as a way to describe Thailand’s diplomatic strategy, and to reassure US allies that Thailand would remain a reliable partner, even in the face of changing geopolitical winds. But the true meaning and origins of this phrase remain shrouded in mystery, as it has been passed down through various retellings and interpretations.

Despite this ambiguity, “bamboo in the wind” has become a shorthand for the unique qualities of Thai foreign policy. It suggests a certain pragmatism and adaptability that has allowed Thailand to maintain its independence and pursue its own interests in a rapidly changing world. And while the phrase may be an unknown known, its enduring popularity speaks to the enduring fascination with Thai diplomacy and its ability to navigate through uncertain times.

In conclusion, “bamboo in the wind” remains a powerful symbol of Thai foreign policy, representing both its strengths and its ambiguities. While its origins may be unclear, its meaning is clear: Thai diplomacy is like bamboo, able to bend and sway in response to changing circumstances, yet firmly rooted in its core principles. As Thailand continues to navigate through an ever-changing world, the phrase “bamboo in the wind” will undoubtedly remain a useful metaphor for understanding its unique approach to international relations.

Correction: Add Cold War Timeline (March 15, 2023)


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