Thailand a new fulcrum for big hitters
Is it by design or default that foreign ministers of the world's three most powerful nations are making their official visits to Thailand at the same time? It does not matter actually. First of all, they are scheduled to be here to attend the Post Ministerial Meeting, East Asian Foreign Ministerial Meeting and Asean Regional Forum anyway. That was it. But the US, China and Russia want to have their presence felt strongly, stating that their trips would be official ones, not at the working level like those of other dialogue partners.
After five years of military rule, Thailand now has a civilian government. Therefore, the big three have lots of common objectives. They have to catch up with the new Thai government on whether there will be any shift, subtle or not, in their respective relationships. They also want to firm up their relations with Thailand. Finally, they view Thailand as a neutral ground where they can converse and hold dialogues with the Asean members and other colleagues.
For the US, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's three-day visit will be his first and the most important visit of the three powers. Washington wants to ensure that its defence and security relations with Bangkok remain strong and relevant. The 2014 coup was a disaster as far as Thai-US ties were concerned as their friendship plummeted and trust went down the drain. Now, Mr Pompeo has the chance to reboot Thai-US ties to take their relations to a new level. Remember, it was the US State Department's analysis that paralysed Thai-US relations. It took countervailing perspectives from the Defence Department and White House to overrule the US State Department's stereotyped thinking about Thailand.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's visit to Washington last October was a milestone that saved Thai-US ties and the alliance. Without the long-standing sentiment and personal rapport that were so common among Thai and US military elites in the past, the memories of good old days over the past six decades would have been forgotten. Policymakers in Washington tend to look at the current situation and make a judgement without taking a broad historical outlook or strategic framework into consideration.
Mr Pompeo has been unconventional so far. With his background at the CIA, he understands the added value of Thailand, not only bilaterally but also in a wider context related to the regional security architecture. Furthermore, new US Defence Secretary Mark Esper has said recently that the US needs more bases throughout the Indo-Pacific region to counter China's rise and technological advancement. As such, Thailand could easily be one of the Pentagon's alternate operating locations. It remains to be seen how Thailand will respond to the US if it is asked to cooperate with the US in confronting China.
For Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi this trip is equally important, as China would like to confirm its solid support of the new government and its future plans, especially on the country's economic development and strategic relations. China's unfaltering support of Thailand since Beijing opened up to Southeast Asia in the 1980s has had many positive effects, not to mention the past five years. Thailand has served as a bridge for China's move into the heartland of Southeast Asia and has helped to moderate views on China's engagement with Asean over the past three decades.
Under the Thai chair, two deliverables have been accomplished -- the completion of the first reading of the Single Draft of COC Negotiating Text and the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP). This would not have been possible without Thailand's diplomatic finesse. At next week's ministerial meetings with dialogue partners, the Asean chair has to garner support from all dialogue partners for the AOIP, its new regional framework for cooperation.
China has already pledged that the code of conduct (COC) on the South China Sea will be completed by 2021. While Asean welcomed China's enthusiasm, some of its members are raising concerns about rushing to complete the COC. For Asean, a bad COC is not an option. With the second reading to start in October in Vietnam, it remains to be seen how Asean and China can negotiate contentious points and move forward to the final third reading by 2021, which would mark the end of text negotiation.
For the time being, China has not delivered an official response to the AOIP. Other dialogue partners such as the US, Japan, India and Australia have welcomed the Asean effort. In Bangkok, Wang Yi will have the opportunity to inform the Asean chair of China's position on the Asean strategy. Beijing must bear in mind that the Asean plan was inclusive from the beginning. Thailand must also convince China that the AOIP will not be hijacked by the West due to the use of the term "Indo-Pacific". Truth be told, China has rejected this geographical construct. That helps to explain why Asean and its AOIP treats the Indo-Pacific as a contiguous region, with Asean at the centre.
Anything short of strong support from China for the AOIP would have long-term negative consequences for Asean-China ties. Throughout the past 18 months of discussions among Asean members, China has been consulted and informed of the AOIP's progress. The US, Japan and Australia have begun to coordinate with the Asean chair to synergise areas of cooperation. In addition, Asean plans to identify how dialogue partners can take part, especially in priority areas such as maritime conservation and protection, and poverty eradication, to name but a few.
To many observers, Russia is a latecomer when it comes to the Indo-Pacific. However, that is not the case. Russia has held its own views on the Indo-Pacific for the past three decades, under its broader Asia-Pacific collective security idea, officially known as the Draft Declaration on the framework Principles of Strengthening Security and developing Cooperation in the Asia Pacific region. But somehow, Moscow's approach has not gained strong traction in Asean. However, Russian President Vladimir Putin understands the importance of Asean and is trying hard to strengthen ties, especially economic ties, with the group. He attended the Asean summit, his first, last November in Singapore. Bangkok wants to make sure Mr Putin will come again for the forthcoming summit.
Russia is promoting its free-trade pact known as the Eurasia Economic Union (EAEU) with Asean. Vietnam signed the EAEU in 2016. Thailand and Indonesia are also interested in the Russian-led free trade group. Mr Putin's strong push yielded one positive outcome -- Russian was admitted as a strategic partner last year before the European Union, which is still in limbo followed joint oppositions by Indonesia and Malaysia.
Indeed, Russia still needs to articulate its approach to Asean. Its second five-year plan of action (2016-2020) needs a strong push from both sides. After-all, Russia would like to be a partner in regional connectivity schemes. There are new areas that Russia can engage with Asean in disaster management, sustainable development projects and smart cities. Moscow is still ambivalent towards the AOIP. Like China, it treats the Indo-Pacific region as a geographical label of the Western alliance aimed at excluding China and Russia. Moscow continues to view Southeast Asian countries as a big client for its weapon systems. In coming years, to be an effective player in the region, Moscow needs a new mindset that implements its pledges as obligations, not aspirations, as has often been the case.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.
A veteran journalist on regional affairs
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs