Towards strategic Thai-French ties
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Towards strategic Thai-French ties

France's President Emmanuel Macron speaks with Muay Thai fighters during a visit to Rajadamnern Muay Thai Stadium in Bangkok on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Summit on Nov 17, 2022. Mr Macron was the first EU leader to visit Thailand. (Photo: AFP)
France's President Emmanuel Macron speaks with Muay Thai fighters during a visit to Rajadamnern Muay Thai Stadium in Bangkok on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Summit on Nov 17, 2022. Mr Macron was the first EU leader to visit Thailand. (Photo: AFP)

In April 2022, Thailand learned that French President Emmanuel Macron was keen to engage with the Asia-Pacific region in person. As the host of the 32nd Asia-Pacific Economic Leaders' Meeting (Apec) in October of that year, former deputy prime minister and foreign minister Don Pramudwinai quickly issued an invitation to the president to attend as a guest. The rest, as they say, is history.

Mr Macron visited Bangkok and attended the Apec meeting, the first EU leader to do so -- making headline news. It was a highly successful summit despite the absence of US President Joe Biden. During the trip, as a non-Apec member but the leader of a leading economic and political power, the French president was able to highlight France's regional and global economic role in the Indo-Pacific. He also met with Apec leaders on the sidelines of the event.

Most importantly, he won the hearts and minds of Thais by choosing to roam Bangkok's streets and watch Muay Thai just like an ordinary visitor. His demeanour over here was extraordinary, and he subsequently laid down additional distinctive pillars for the two countries to diversify and deepen their three centuries-old bilateral ties. Now, both soft power and hard power have become top priorities in the Thai-French friendship.

France was the first European country to come out with an Indo-Pacific strategy back in 2018. Its involvement and consequences during the colonial period in Indochina and the Pacific are well documented. Today, France takes up a different role. The republic wants to approach familiar turf with a new attitude and spirit -- a mutually beneficial relationship encompassing all aspects. Notably, France is the only Western country with its own Indo-Pacific strategy that still maintains amiable ties with China. Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Paris in early May.

Since leaving Bangkok, Mr Macron has been active in global politics, especially in the Ukraine-Russia war, strengthening Nato and EU solidarity and promoting France's Indo-Pacific strategy. As one of the EU's most powerful leaders, his opinions cannot be ignored as they are indicative of international political trends. It, therefore, follows that Thai policymakers, both in the security and economic fields, are determined to bolster their cooperation with France. Today, within Europe, France has the best ties with Thailand. In fact, Thailand wants to establish a strategic partnership with France. However, Paris is still vetting this proposal as it intends to increase strategic engagement with Bangkok, such as cooperation in military education, training and exercise, and cyber and space.

In Paris on Thursday, Mr Macron will host a lunch for Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin during the Thai PM's six-hour stopover (afterwards, Mr Srettha travels to Rome). These active diplomatic moves between Thai and French leaders are unprecedented both in scope and substance. Travelling with Mr Srettha will be a powerful group of Thai business leaders from corporate giants such as Charoen Pokphand and others.

General Songwit Noonpakdee, Chief of Defence Forces, will be part of Mr Srettha's delegation but will arrive earlier to lead a group of Thai defence companies to meet their French counterparts. Obviously, France would like to see some defence cooperation between the two countries including arms procurements in addition to commercial aircraft. The Thai Defence Industry and Energy Centre and the French General Directorate for Armaments will also sign a letter of intent to promote their defence sectors.

In addition, three MoUs will be signed during the stopover. The first is between CP Foods and Schneider Electric on a strategic partnership on top-tier automation and software solutions. It has the potential to expand energy management for the two countries.

The second MoU between state satellite agency Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency and Starburst Aerospace, a leading aerospace and defence startup accelerator and strategic advisory practice, covers space capability in the future.

The third MoU between CP International and Airbus, which is currently being finalised, will focus on the production of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) by using feedstock waste, as well as building strong cooperation around logistics optimisation, both on land and in the air, which has great potential for strengthening cooperation between Thailand and France in the areas of energy and logistics.

As far as soft power is concerned, at the recent High-Level Economic Dialogue in Paris, both sides agreed to promote soft power in cosmetics, perfume, textiles and fashion lines, especially Thai silk, and in health tourism. Furthermore, they exchanged views on their countries' experience with the bio-circular-green economic model. Last month, Benedicte Epinay, director and CEO of Comite Colbert, was here to exchange knowledge on the branding of luxury goods.

The most interesting features of Thai-French relations are the common positions they hold on key international issues -- the Ukraine-Russia war, the Middle East conflict, the Myanmar situation and the climate crisis. Both countries support the initiatives that would end the war in Ukraine. They will also attend the upcoming Peace Conference on Ukraine to be held in Switzerland June 15-16, to which Thailand has been invited.

Thailand and France are on the same page over the Middle East as they endorse the international community's call to de-escalate the Hamas-Israel conflict. Together, they have also appealed for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and unconditional release of all hostages in the Gaza Strip, including French and Thai hostages. On the situation in Myanmar, they want peace in the country. As a member of the UN Security Council, Thailand hopes that France will support the efforts by Thailand and Asean to provide humanitarian assistance to Myanmar as well as the ongoing implementation of the peace process. Above all, Thailand and France wish to see an end to the current fighting and the start of dialogue.

Despite pressing domestic issues, both countries are working closely together to boost bilateral ties to a new level. This has been done at the leadership level, and now Mr Srettha is about to make his second visit to France in six months. After the EU normalised ties with Thailand in 2019, France has done the most to reach out to Bangkok. Since then, ties with France have gained greater significance vis-a-vis other Western friends and allies.

France has adopted a new perspective on Thailand after a newly elected government. Paris is pivoting its Indo-China strategy on Bangkok due to its geo-strategic assets and as a hub of connectivity. Both countries also want to maintain their strategic autonomy when engaging with external partners. Together, their profiles in the region could be further ramped up as France is also considered a great power with influence in global affairs.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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