New playbook for Thai diplomacy?
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New playbook for Thai diplomacy?

Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara and Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin listen to lawmakers questioning government policies in Parliament yesterday. (Photo: Chanat Katanyu)
Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara and Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin listen to lawmakers questioning government policies in Parliament yesterday. (Photo: Chanat Katanyu)

The Srettha government has started outlining its policies in parliament. Regarding diplomacy and internal policies, two paragraphs in the middle of the draft speech encapsulate the guiding principle of Thailand's new diplomatic trajectory.

In the first paragraph, the new prime minister outlined the country's foreign policy direction in a generic way, insisting the government will promote its role in the global arena, with a priority to balance national interests and strengthen ties with neighbouring countries.

That means, under the foreign policy of the latest Pheu Thai government, Thailand remains a focal point in forging cooperation with regional groupings and economic and international development organisations. That role is expected to boost the confidence and security of Thailand.

The second paragraph must be highlighted and scrutinised because it is more specific and clearer. The government pledges to fulfil the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that aim to reduce disparity, uplift living standards, ramp up measures to improve road safety and reduce non-communicable disease patients, and premature death. It will engage in fair competition coupled with peace-building efforts and protection of human rights.

It needs to be mentioned that the Pheu Thai government will not undo the work of the Prayut government. The new government took on the previous government's policy of carbon neutrality to ensure Thailand becomes a leader in Asean in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

At the global climate summit in the UK in 2021, Thailand pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and net zero emissions by 2065. The Pheu Thai-led government is a firm believer that sustainable development will open the door wide to global trade and in the long term will enhance the country's trade competitiveness in manufacturing and service sectors.

With sustainable development, the government can negotiate foreign trade deals which hinge on energy efficiency, clean technology and net zero. Sustainable development will be the essential driving force for the country's economy including in the manufacturing, service and financial sectors.

At this juncture, it is a must to understand the context of Thai foreign policy through the lens of sustainable development.

Under former deputy prime minister and former foreign minister Don Pramudwinai, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been working diligently to popularise homegrown wisdom rooted in the sufficient economy philosophy practised here over the past four decades.

It was not surprising that in 2016, Thailand took up a challenging task as coordinator between Asean and the UN in their cooperation to promote sustainable development in the region. Gradually, Thailand's commitment to fulfilling both sustainable development goals under the Asean Vision and the UN 2020 agenda has been praised. Since 2017, Asean and the UN have worked in tandem to implement these sustainable development goals.

Subsequently, this coordinating role has led to cooperation with the European Union. This non-traditional area between Thailand and EU eventually generated positive vibes among EU policymakers, who were critical of the country's political crisis and the Prayut government.

After years of scrutiny and evaluation, on Dec 11, 2017, Brussels decided to normalise ties with Thailand, which was downgraded after the 2014 coup, paving the way forward for the two sides to forge a balanced and broad engagement in all dimensions. The EU perceives Thailand as a committed partner to defend multilateralism and a rules-based international order.

In the post-Covid-19 world, The Srettha government can strengthen Thailand-EU relations through their partnership on sustainable development and green economy.

One caveat is in order as the EU has recently come up with new measures to mitigate the climate crisis such as the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM), corporate social responsibility (CSR) and the latest EU Deforestation Regulation (EUDR).

Developing and less developed countries have argued against these measures, which they view as discriminatory as they do not have same anti-climate change regulatory frameworks and capacity. On Sept 7, Thailand joined other 17 developing countries in expressing concerns to Brussels over the EUDR and its far-reaching repercussions. The EU unilateral benchmarking on the deforestation of others could be perceived as protectionist measures.

That helps explain the reason why the slogan "Leaving no one behind" became the leitmotif of Thailand's sustainable development approach in the previous government. Lest we forget, as the Asean chair in 2019, Thailand committed to the theme of sustainable development as well. This commitment is part of the country's 20-year National Strategy (2017-2036), which will serve as a foundation for Thailand's development.

For nearly a decade, Thailand's foreign policy has been focusing on balancing progress among economic, environmental, and social spheres. It was an undaunted task for the country's diplomacy to recover from the 2014 coup and to restore trust in the country. The MFA's top echelons know what needs to be done to move the country ahead. It is the road they frequently travel.

This approach has raised the country's overall profile and complements Thailand's Bio-economy, Circular economy, and Green economy, popularly known as BCG, launched in early 2021, to the global arena. Last year, the BCG economic model formed part of the crux of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders' meeting. The Bangkok Goals for BCG, under the current chair of the US, has already been put into practice within the Apec frameworks.

Furthermore, during the tumultuous years of the Covid-19 pandemic, Thailand's foreign policy also promoted the country's vibrant primary health care for the international community through its collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO). Thanks to the pandemic, Thailand has become globally recognised for its innovative health system as well as its universal health care. For various reasons, the incoming government has inherited a country that has attracted the highest numbers of visitors in the world this year in the post-pandemic era. The latest figure showed 16 million tourists visited Thailand.

Taken together, the sustainable development policies and excellent health care are just two -- sustainability and standard -- of five strategies adopted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2021 to serve as the guidelines for the conduct of Thai foreign policy. The remaining three strategies under the so-called 5S strategies are security, status, and synergy. All these strategies are interlinked and mutually inclusive.

For instance, Thailand's stance on the ongoing Ukraine-Russia war was much criticised. Many countries were critical of Thailand's pattern of voting in United Nations, but those stances were the outcome of policy recalibration based on national interest. The country's decisions were not beholden to any camp or preference.

All 5S strategies -- sustainability, standard, security, status, and synergy -- need more scrutiny and peer review by scholars of international relations. The general belief that characterises Thai foreign policy as bamboo bending with the wind might not be sufficient to explain the complexities of the emerging regional and global environment that influence the country's diplomatic decision-making process. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. The new government can build on what has been achieved and further broaden areas that need to be given a special lift, especially expanding multilateral trade agreements.

The prime minister will give his maiden international speech at the United Nations General Assembly on Sept 22. He could showcase Thailand to the global community together with his vision of Thailand anchored in the international rule of laws, norms and standards.

Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara will have to map out a more detailed policy in coming days. Doubtless, the core elements of Thai diplomacy will remain unchanged. Among them are good neighbourly relations, proactive engagement with Asean, multilateral cooperation and navigating geopolitical minefields. But certain policies could be reinvigorated to fit with the new environment both at home and abroad.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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