Boosting Northeast India-Thailand ties

Boosting Northeast India-Thailand ties

A traditional dancer performing at an event at the Iconsiam shopping complex in March that celebrated 75 years since diplomatic ties were established between Thailand and India. (Photo: Chanat Katanyu)
A traditional dancer performing at an event at the Iconsiam shopping complex in March that celebrated 75 years since diplomatic ties were established between Thailand and India. (Photo: Chanat Katanyu)

The northeastern part of India is a very important component of India's "Act-East Policy" as it shares land borders with Myanmar. As many as four states of Northeast India, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram share borders with Myanmar.

On the other hand, India and Thailand also share a maritime border in the Andaman Sea.

Within Asean, Thailand has had a long history of close ties with India since time immemorial. At present, interest in India is growing in Thailand and vice versa.

A growing number of Indian companies are looking at Thailand and through Thailand at emerging markets in Southeast Asia.

Since Thailand is a Buddhist-majority country, there is plenty of room for cooperation between the two countries in the field of religious tourism. Then, there are areas like the sustainable management of forestry resources.

WHY THAILAND IS 'ACTING WEST'?

Thailand has a host of reasons to "Act West". India is without a doubt Thailand's gateway to South Asia. There are a huge number of Indian tourists who visit Thailand and this is increasing people-to-people ties.

Recently, the Northeast Festival was held in Thailand to showcase the traditional links between India's Northeast and Thailand.

On the other hand, Thailand and India face common challenges due to the instability in Myanmar with the challenges from drug trafficking, people smuggling etc emanating from that country.

At the same time, a very important connectivity project that is being undertaken is the India-Myanmar-Thailand highway project. This could be a game changer in the field of India-Thailand ties, especially for Northeast India.

Connectivity is a major challenge for Northeast India, especially as it became landlocked after the partition of India in 1947.

WHY IS INDIA ACTING EAST?

The breakup of the erstwhile Soviet Union made it imperative for New Delhi to look towards new partners in the East -- which included both Southeast Asian and East Asian countries. Thailand was an obvious choice, because of the close links between the two countries.

In addition, it made economic sense too as Thailand is an upper-middle-income country and one of the five so-called "Tiger Cub economies".

CHALLENGES

However, there are some problem areas as well.

First, the connectivity between cities in Northeast India and Thailand needs to improve. Direct flights between Bangkok and Guwahati (the biggest city in Northeast India) had started with Nok Air but those flights have now stopped. This is one of the biggest challenges when it comes to improving the ties between Northeast India and Thailand as there is a lack of substantial traffic (in terms of movement of people) between Northeast India and Thailand. This is unlike as seen with other Indian cities such as Chennai or Kolkata which have good connectivity with cities in Thailand.

Second, another challenge is the present situation in Myanmar which has put the brakes on the developing ties between India and Thailand. Since it is unlikely to be resolved in the immediate future, it means that development cooperation between India and Thailand will also be left in the lurch. Drugs and human trafficking from Myanmar to Thailand are serious issues and this is also the case with Myanmar citizens who are sometimes trafficked into India.

Third, the road construction process in the case of the India-Myanmar-Thailand (IMT) highway has been progressing very slowly and this has been exacerbated by the goings-on in Myanmar.

THE ROAD AHEAD

As India and Thailand celebrate 75 years of diplomatic ties, it's the right time to take relations to the next level. New Delhi also needs to look at increasing the number of tourists visiting India from Thailand, especially to its Northeast.

Recently, Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha sent a congratulatory message to his Indian counterpart on the occasion of 75 years of the establishment of bilateral ties. The statement read "the cultural and historical ties between our peoples span millennia and provide a strong foundation for our diplomatic relations, as highlighted by the commemorative activities organised in both Thailand and India throughout this year. I am pleased that our friendship and cooperation have grown from strength to strength in all areas, especially through the times of hardship from the Covid-19 epidemic".

The Indian government has been laying a special emphasis on developing the northeastern part of India and funds have been allocated to improve the infrastructure in this area. In the near future, this part of India should be able to attract Thai tourists and investors. This part of India is where India's "Act-East Policy" intersects with Thailand's "Act-West Policy".


Dr Rupakyoti Borah, PhD, specialises in India-Asean and India-Japan relations, with a special focus on Northeast India. His latest book is 'The Strategic Relations Between India, the United States and Japan in the Indo-Pacific: When Three is Not a Crowd' (World Scientific, Singapore). The views expressed here are personal.

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