Aussie ties out of the woods, raring to go
'Thais that bind: secret mission ends Aussie's torment," read the front page headline of The Australian on Nov 22, 2020. It was referring to Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert, the British-Australian academic arrested in late 2018 by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard as she was about to leave Tehran over an espionage charge. She was subsequently sentenced to 10 years in jail in a secret trial.
Her freedom was secured when the Thais released three Iranians from a Thai jail in exchange for Dr Moore-Gilbert after nearly two years of secret shuttle diplomacy administered by Thailand. While Australian media, both broadcast and print, hailed the brilliant Australian diplomatic finesse, the role of Thailand was not highlighted. Canberra branded the incident a consular case.
In November 2018, an Aussie football player of Bahraini descent, Hakeem al Araibi, was arrested on arrival in Bangkok. Thai police made the arrest following a Bahrain "red notice". He was detained in a Thai jail, awaiting deportation to Bahrain. However, in early February 2019, through the personal intervention of Foreign Affairs Minister Don Pramudwinai with the Bahraini government, the Thai Office of the Attorney-General dropped the extradition case against him at Bahrain's request. Araibi later returned to Australia. It was again described as a consular case.
These two episodes demonstrated the evolving relationship between Thailand and Australia following the May 2014 coup when the lives of Australians were at risk. Behind the scenes, Thailand used all available resources and connections to secure Australian citizens' safety as in Dr Moore-Gilbert's case. Araibi was able to return to Australia after Bahrain withdrew the demand.
Then, in June 2018, a miracle happened. Australia was in the headlines throughout the world for weeks. The country assisted in the rescue of 12 young Thai football players trapped in a cave deep in Chiang Rai. The rescue gradually removed the stigma surrounding Thai-Aussie ties.
In contrast, during the heyday of Thai-Aussie relations under various Labour governments in the 1990s, their close cooperation helped to bring peace to Cambodia and nation-building to East Timor. Lest we forget, back in September 1999, when Australia was looking for an Asean partner to join the planned peace-keeping operation in East Timor, Thailand was the first country to take up the challenge, while other Asean members were reluctant. Their joint command in peace-keeping in the newly independent nation was well documented and praised.
During the Cambodian conflict, Thailand and Australia stood side-by-side closely to bring about peace and the withdrawal of foreign troops. Canberra strongly supported Bangkok's position and the Asean framework.
Any discussion on modern Australian foreign policy towards Southeast Asia often features Thailand as a partner or a facilitator. After all, it was the Hawke government that funded the construction of the Thai-Lao bridge across the Mekong river, which was opened in 1994. It was considered continental Southeast Asia's first infrastructure connectivity. Now with the new Labour government in power under Prime Minister Antony Albanese, Australia will reconnect with Southeast Asia in ways never before seen.
Canberra is working on a long-term economic strategy for Southeast Asia supported by A$450 million or US$295 million (11 billion baht), which will be announced in the near future. As a precursor, an Office of Southeast Asia has been set up in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to coordinate and synergise policies of all related agencies that bear the imprint of Southeast Asia.
This year, Thailand and Australia commemorate the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations. Over the past decade, relations have remained benign without any outstandingly difficult bilateral issues. Indeed, the most exciting news was the unprecedented visit of HM King Maha Vajiralongkorn to the Australian Embassy in February last year. Another headline was HM the King naming an alley after a former Australian envoy to Thailand, Allan McKinnon.
Among the liberal Western countries, Australia is just one of the few that does not suffer from the "trust deficit" due to the generally favourable attitude of the Thais towards the Australians, serving as a rock-solid foundation of Thailand-Australian relations. Their joint efforts in life-saving and peace-making are well known and continue today.
Given the ongoing dramatic shift in the strategic landscape throughout the world, Thai-Aussie relations have been under scrutiny by the US allies and friends, as both are treaty allies of the US in the Indo-Pacific region. Hence, the frequently asked question has been: What will be the future trajectory of their bilateral ties in responding to challenges posed by the growing US and China rivalry, the impacts of the Russian-Ukraine war, and the Myanmar crisis? In answering this, we can learn from the past.
In the 1990s, Thailand and Australia were considered buddies-in-arms in ending the Cambodian civil war. The two worked together within Asean and international contexts. Today, the region's biggest challenge is the Myanmar quagmire.
Indeed, a clarion call has gone out for them to collaborate again to bring about normalcy in Myanmar. It will not be an easy task as the current situation remains fluid, and the conflicting parties have to agree to discuss a ceasefire and action plan for humanitarian assistance. Thailand and Australia are on the same page when it comes to Myanmar. If the impasse continues to drag on, it will destabilise peace and stability in the region. Therefore, they must work together with Asean and the international community to find a solution that is acceptable to all.
When Aussie Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong makes her first scheduled visit to Thailand on November 1-2, she will be able to assess the situation in Myanmar with Thailand as a strategic partner. Her stay here will come hot on the heels of the two countries recently holding their first two-plus-two strategic dialogue between senior officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defence. The discussions will provide input on their future action plans related to the whole gamut of their relations, including strategic and security matters.
Both countries will also discuss the upcoming Apec leaders' meeting and their input, as well as the possible official visit of Mr Albanese sometime next year. Since 1998, there have been no visits from an Aussie PM.
Truth be told, both sides have yet to maximise their economic relations even though they concluded a free trade agreement back in 2005. In 2020, Thailand's exports to Australia were about $10.3 billion, while Australia exported $5.4 billion to Thailand. The figure showed a huge large trade surplus with its trucks and cars exports to Australia.
Furthermore, Thailand invested $5.77 billion in Australia in 2019, with only $3.12 billion investment from Australia. Thailand is also the only developing country that exports more manufactured goods and fruits to Australia than any other.
With the new Labor government, Australia has been enthusiastic about reaching out to Southeast Asia. Ms Wong has made it clear that Australia's security is intrinsically linked to Southeast Asia's security. She would be keen to discuss with Mr Don how their countries can rejuvenate their old spirit of cooperation for peace.
Indeed, now that Australia and Thailand want to strengthen further and maximise their decades-old relations, they will need to develop creative ways to boost their already unconventional ways of doing things.
A veteran journalist on regional affairs
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs