Imagining Thai diplomacy under MFP
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Imagining Thai diplomacy under MFP

Former Asean secretary-general and former foreign minister, the late Surin Pitsuwan, who was seen as a trailblazer of Thailand's liberal foreign policy. 
(Photo by: Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)
Former Asean secretary-general and former foreign minister, the late Surin Pitsuwan, who was seen as a trailblazer of Thailand's liberal foreign policy.  (Photo by: Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)

With the winners of the recent election headed by the Move Forward Party still working to form the next government, it is too early to predict the outcome of the political manoeuvring by its potential coalition partners. If everything goes as planned, it will be the first liberal government in Thai history. Since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, Thailand has been struggling to establish a strong foundation for a liberal society with democratic norms and values. So far, the efforts have not been successful, leaving Thailand stuck with the label of a half-baked democracy. Government after government has tried to push forward democratisation but failed due to political polarisation and a deep-rooted patronage system.

Speaking to numerous media groups throughout last week, MFP chief Pita Limjaroenrat outlined his foreign policy ideas, which will focus on the "Three Rs" -- revival, rebalancing and recalibration -- assuming that he would like to take up both the premiership and foreign minister portfolio.

He said his objective is to see Thailand up the ante in external relations.

As a young and progressive leader, he believes Thailand should play a proactive role in the international arena, promoting human rights and the rules-based order. He sees Thailand as a middle power that can help shape the new world order.

He also said Bangkok must also maintain close cooperation with Asean. Most importantly, he said Thailand's voice must be heard, vowing not to follow the brand of quiet diplomacy that has been the standard practice for decades. What Mr Pita fluently said in Thai and English is a no-brainer. These were the same old promises, which he has simply repackaged with an enthusiastic spin.

Without a doubt, Thai voters' decision to go for a party with a progressive agenda will have far-reaching implications for the country's foreign policy. The question that remains is whether it is truly feasible for Thailand to pursue a truly liberal foreign policy agenda when the rest of mainland Southeast Asia is struggling to remain open and democratic.

With its new credentials as a liberal democracy, albeit a still imperfect one, Thailand will be hailed as an example showing that countries that have spent years under military rule can make a successful transition to democracy. The new faces of Thai politics will be welcomed by Western liberal democracies.

Given the country's strategic location at the heart of the Indo-Pacific region, a democratic Thailand will be a huge strategic asset for the United States and its allies. With the US-China rivalry continuing to intensify, Thailand's foreign policy outlook will be scrutinised by all great powers.

A legitimate Thai government that comes from a free and fair election will be treated with respect in all spheres of engagement abroad. In addition, with Mr Pita as PM, Thailand will join a small but growing club of countries with young leaders at the helm.

But truth be told, this is not the first time that Thailand has tried to pursue a progressive agenda. Just a reminder, Mr Pita's articulation of Thailand's future foreign policy pathway has been mentioned each time a new government is about to come into office, especially the part about balancing ties with superpowers and forging deeper relations with Asean.

Let us turn the clock back to 1997, right after the Asian financial turbulence, which is now known as the Tom Yum Kung crisis when Thailand became infamously known throughout the world for its disastrous financial collapse.

The incoming Chuan Leekpai administration had to adopt a progressive foreign policy agenda to woo international support, both politically and economically. At the time, Thailand's foreign policy was perceived as pro-West, as many assistance programmes and aid were coming from Western countries.

However, cordial ties with other great powers such as China, Russia, and India were not affected either. In fact, the Sino-Thai friendship was strengthened due to Beijing's decision not to devalue its currency.

From 1997-2000, Thailand ranked high in all human rights and democratic-related indexes in the US and Europe. After all, Thailand had just promulgated the popular people's charter in 1997.

Surin Pitsuwan, the versatile foreign minister under the Chuan administration, travelled the world to conduct public diplomacy and show off Thailand's new image.

He often stressed that liberal norms and values could save Thailand's failing economy, personally telling me that "no country would want to help dictatorial countries".

Lest we forget, in that period, Thailand had one of the most liberal foreign policies in this part of the world. Officials at Saranrom Palace, another name for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, incorporated the promotion of human rights and democratic norms as part of the country's diplomatic tenets.

Obviously, that was the right strategy as Thailand quickly gained recognition and garnered widespread empathy and foreign assistance. However, this approach has gradually eroded over time, as while the ideas were sound, the reality on the ground dictated otherwise.

There were drawbacks to the democratic shift. At that time, a sense of unease and anxiety prevailed among Thailand's immediate neighbours, who were afraid that the progressive agenda would spread into their borders -- the same way many countries during the Cold War feared they would one-by-one fall to communism like dominoes, as outlined by the popular Domino theory.

Thailand's democratic shift at that critical moment could have had a similar effect as well. But it did not happen.

Within the country, there is a concern in some quarters that a liberal Thailand will side with the US and make China its enemy. That kind of bifurcated view will not become a reality if history is any judge.

Obviously, the outcome of the recent election would further increase the region's strategic appeal to America and its allies in the region, especially in the face of a rising China. Once the new government is sworn in, Thailand will officially become a democracy and be invited to join the next round of the Democracy Forum.

The Biden administration had ignored Thailand previously as a democratic partner. But since May 2014, Thailand has been trying to shake off its soft brand of autocracy.

Until the new government is formed, it is premature to envisage the new contours of Thai foreign policy. Hence, it is likely the current foreign policy as outlined under the 20-year National Strategy will continue as it has served the national interest well given the day-to-day circumstances and constraints.

One essential question remains: What will be the next government's biggest foreign policy challenge? The answer will certainly depend on how quickly and adroitly Thailand can rebalance and recalibrate the changing dynamics in the region and the world after nearly three months of domestic dilly-dallying.

These days, in the age of multipolarity, there is no grace period for diplomacy.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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