Revising diplomacy amid pandemic
This year was supposed to be the golden year of Thai foreign policy. Emerging triumphantly from the Asean chairmanship in 2019 after five years under troubled skies, the new civilian government laid out a raft of initiatives and collaborative efforts that were intended to increase its international profile and propel its regional role beyond Asean. For now, however, Covid-19 has put a dampener on such endeavours.
Worse still, due to the unexpected economic slowdown and financial consequences of the Covid-19 outbreak, last week the Thai army said that the country might need "time to heal" after the pandemic. As a result, it plans to delay purchases of military equipment for the current budget year. Whatever the outcome, this will impact Thailand's relations with the US and China -- both major arms suppliers.
Thai-US ties have both been normalised and moved up several rungs since 2018, when Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha visited the White House. Last year was pivotal to the readjustment of overall Thai-US relations after years of frozen ties, with all aspects of cooperation restored. On the back of improved bilateral relations, coupled with a friendlier mood in the US Congress, Thailand decided to purchase more arms from the US. The US Department of Defence last year approved the purchase of eight attack helicopters and other weapons at a cost of US$400 million.
But the announcement of the delayed purchase and likely defence budget cuts could affect related contracts, leading to renegotiations. When Thailand was hit by an economic crisis in 1997 under the Chuan administration, the country had to delay payment for the purchase of eight F/A-18 fighters. Today, the Thai army has been harshly criticised by opposition parties and the public for its longstanding political interference and arrogance, not to mention bloated budgets. The notion that the army is considered a "sacred" institution has also offended a broad sector of Thai society.
At this juncture, US-Thai ties could be further tarnished due to trade friction. Washington has decided to halt GSP privileges for Thai exports, effective later this month, on flimsy grounds. The US cited what it called Thailand's unfair labour laws, which ban foreign workers from forming labour unions -- a practice similar to that in the US.
Thai officials have questioned the US action, arguing that it is in retaliation for Thailand's ban on three chemicals (paraquat, glyphosate and chlorpyrifos) in the farming sector. Both sides are still discussing the issue as it will have severe implications for imports of US pork and offal worth billions of baht.
The army's plan to delay weapon imports will also affect the planned purchase of a second Chinese submarine worth 12 billion baht by the Royal Thai Navy. Both sides have yet to work out how that deal will go forward. This year will commemorate the 45th anniversary of Thailand-China relations with a number of celebrations. It remains to be seen if President Xi Jinping will visit Thailand this year. Mr Xi has already visited all the other Asean countries -- his last trip to Southeast Asia was in mid-January to Myanmar.
It must be noted here that in the past three months, ties between the "plus three" of the Asean equation (China, Japan and South Korea) have improved markedly. Cooperation with Asean over the pandemic has also strengthened their relations. Today, Asean leaders have been forced to teleconference with their plus-three counterparts to outline common efforts to fight Covid-19.
Closer to home, Thailand's initiative to launch the fund for the Ayeyawady-Chaophraya-Mekong- Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECs) this March was also delayed. The estimated $500 million (16.3 billion baht) ACMECs fund could herald a new model of economic cooperation among the members of Mekong subregion and dialogue partners. Bangkok has already allocated $200 million for the fund, the biggest amount so far for such a project, while other AMCECs will also have to contribute. Asean's dialogue partners have been tapped to contribute too.
The postponement of the Asean-US special summit in March also pushed back plans to promote the joint US partnership with the lower Mekong riparian members, with Thailand and Vietnam jointly playing a leading role. Washington wants to rejuvenate its engagement in the subregion with new funding and partnerships. With the ongoing pandemic, the current Asean chair, Vietnam, has to concentrate on efforts related to Covid-19 and its effects on Asean economies and livelihoods.
As part of efforts to deal with the pandemic regionally, Thailand has put forward a proposal called the Asean Response Fund, which today will be considered by the leaders of Asean and their plus three partners via teleconference. The plan will pool resources, roughly 10%, from the Asean Development Fund, Asean Plus Three Cooperation Fund and Cooperation Funds with China, Japan and South Korea. The funds could be used to purchase medicine and medical equipment, as well as vaccine-related research.
Under Vietnam's chair, various Asean ministers and agencies have already held a dozen online meetings and consultations, on issues including defence, economics, tourism and health. The current Asean chair, Vietnam, hopes the pandemic will further strengthen the grouping's cohesiveness and responsiveness.
Bilaterally, Thailand and Vietnam were scheduled to hold their third joint cabinet meeting early this month, but that meeting was postponed. They plan to upgrade their strategic partnership and broaden the range of cooperation within the Asean and ACMECs frameworks. Their closer ties are also expected to bolster the Asean agenda.
Finally, Thailand and Indonesia have to recalibrate the Asean Outlook on Indo-Pacific (AOIP) as soon as possible. The political and economic landscape has dramatically changed both in the region and the world at large. The Covid-19 pandemic provides an opportunity for the Asean members and dialogue partners, as a group and individually, to work together on a comprehensive human security framework. The AOIP serves as a neutral platform for the Asean members and dialogue partners to work together constructively.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.