Thais hedge bets on international stage
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Thais hedge bets on international stage

Thailand's decision last week to apply for full Brics membership came as a shock to Western allies and friends, not least because it followed a positive assessment by the Special Session of the OECD Council (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) after Thailand filed a letter of intent to join the OECD In February.

In his presentation of Thailand's roadmap to join the OECD at its headquarters in Paris in April, former deputy prime minister and foreign minister Parnpree Bahiddha-nukara declared that for Thailand, joining OECD marked the beginning of a new and meaningful chapter towards becoming a reliable strategic ally and impactful economic partner within the OECD family.

It would be a milestone for the country's efforts to become an advanced economy by 2037, and, most importantly, it has strategic implications for future developments in the Indo-Pacific. With such a clear-eyed vision, nobody expected a thunderbolt from the potential member from Southeast Asia announcing the desire to join Brics.

A senior veteran Thai diplomat described the Thai hedging strategy by referencing a hypothetical Hollywood movie with the working title of: "OECD and Brics: Everything all at once".

Officials at Saranrom Palace probably had a stressful time last week as they had to explain the rationale behind the country's rebarbative move to the Bangkok-based Western diplomatic community who are dumbfounded as to why the country wanted to join Brics at this particular moment, given the bloc's strong "anti-West" rhetoric, its stances on the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the currency war, and the struggle for a new world order.

However, according to government spokesperson Chai Wacharonke, it is Thailand's opportunity to join Brics, which is trying to enlarge its membership base. He added that the current Brics chair, Russia, has invited Thailand to attend the 16th Brics summit in the Russian city of Kazan in October. At the summit, Thailand can accelerate its accession to Brics, enhance its role as a leader among developing countries, and increase its opportunity to shape international economic policymaking.

The letter of intent, signed by Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, stated that Thailand places importance on multilateralism and the increased representation of developing countries in the international system. As such, Thailand, as a Brics member, would benefit the country by elevating its international role and augmenting its leverage to shape a new world order.

The decision to join Brics is more than meets the eye. The bid is the decision from the top echelons of the Pheu Thai-led cabinet. It must be noted that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs recommended that Thailand focus on OECD membership first and then expressed the intention to join Brics later.

At the very least, it should be after the OECD Council had decided to consider the Thai bid for accession on June 19 in Paris. So far, Thailand has received positive feedback and support from OECD members, but now the ministry is concerned that Western friends and allies will see Thailand's Brics bid as a reason why it won't end up joining the OECD.

Meanwhile, Mr Chai is confident that the decision to admit Thailand into Brics could be made by October. The kingdom has good relations with all 10 Brics members, and Thailand and Brics are on the same page when it comes to vision, principles and objectives. Most importantly, both place importance on multilateralism and the increased representation of developing countries in the international system.

Notably, the current Brics chair, President Vladimir Putin, has maintained a good personal relationship with Thaksin, who was Thai prime minister from 2001-2006. Having Thailand as a Brics member under Mr Putin's watch would be a manifestation of Thaksin's political clout and their good personal ties.

Next week, Foreign Minister Maris Sangiampongsa is scheduled to attend a special ministerial session on the sidelines of the Brics foreign ministerial meeting in Nizhny Novgorod. He will meet with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov and deliver the letter of intent to join Brics. This also comes as Pheu Thai chief Paetongtarn Shinawatra prepares to travel to Vladivostok to attend a Brics meeting of the leading government parties in mid-June at Moscow's invitation.

Brics has been on the Thai diplomatic radar since its inception in 2006. Thai foreign policymakers have often looked for counterbalancing forces, both economic and security, in the international system to maintain the country's strategic equilibrium and autonomy. Closer partnership with Brics is in line with the country's diplomatic objectives of strengthening ties with the developing countries in the Global South, raising international profile, and expanding exports.

Brics represents 45% of the world's population and 28% of global GDP. It is a huge marketplace for Thailand. Strategically speaking, as a potential Brics member, Thailand could serve as a moderating force as it has good ties with all countries in both East and West. Being the first Asean nation to join Brics, it would be a breakthrough for Southeast Asia, which can also increase the bloc's regional appeal and influence to promote a more balanced geopolitical environment.

Thailand's relations with Brics can be traced back to the summer of 2016 when the leaders of Asean and Russia met in the Black Sea city of Sochi to commemorate 20 years of Russia being an Asean dialogue partner. On the sidelines, former deputy prime minister and foreign affairs minister Don Pramudwinai discussed strengthening ties with Russia bilaterally and under various regional frameworks, including Brics, the Shanghai Organization Cooperation, and the Eurasia Economic Union.

In 2022, when China chaired the Brics summit, Thailand was invited to join in a virtual format. Beijing has made it clear that it welcomes Bangkok to join the Brics family. Mr Don attended the latest summit in Johannesburg last August as an observer under the South African chair.

At one point, Indonesia was expected to be the first Asean member to join Brics as the bloc decided to enlarge its membership to include five new members -- Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates -- selected from a total of 23 applicants. President Joko Widodo later revealed that Indonesia did not submit the letter of intent as it wanted more time to study the pros and cons of joining the bloc.

Brics was first comprised of Brazil, China, India, and Russia. It was later joined by South Africa in 2010, which formed the current name. Its main purpose is to promote economic and political cooperation among developing countries. Lately, the bloc has attracted a lot of attention due to its growing economic and political power, which is driven by China and India. Russia has now become an anomaly because of the Ukraine war.

For Thailand, the OECD membership is an effort to improve its economic standards and competitiveness. The Pheu Thai government wants to increase foreign direct investment and views the OECD as a vital tool to attract more investors -- it is about economic efficiency and governance.

However, the desire to join Brics carries more strategic significance, given its growing global appeal amid current geopolitical uncertainty. For Pheu Thai, it serves Thailand's interest to be associated with both OECD and Brics.

Now the ball is in their court -- to accelerate or delay Thailand's dual ambitions. Ultimately, it will depend on the candidate's economic and strategic value-added to these organisations.

Either way, Thailand will continue to play out its diplomatic balancing act.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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