Thailand's Brics move is misguided
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Thailand's Brics move is misguided

Foreign Minister Maris Sangiampongsa delivers a speech during the BRICS Ministers of Foreign Affairs/International Relations Meeting in Nizhny Novgorod on June 11. (Photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Thailand)
Foreign Minister Maris Sangiampongsa delivers a speech during the BRICS Ministers of Foreign Affairs/International Relations Meeting in Nizhny Novgorod on June 11. (Photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Thailand)

There are two main explanations behind Thailand's application to join the Brics group, initially comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.

One explanation is the government's intention to show a quick deliverable in the absence of policy progress elsewhere. The other, more questionable rationale revolves around a personal connection between former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is the de facto leader of the ruling Pheu Thai Party, and Russian President Vladamir Putin, who presides over Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Either way, Thailand's intended entry into Brics is misguided and poses liabilities for Thailand's international standing and credibility. Starting out with Brazil, Russia, India, and China in 2009, the Brics grouping as it is known became complete when South Africa joined in the following year. When these five economies came together, the Global Financial Crisis was ravaging developed economies, particularly the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe, and Japan.

It was an economic nadir for Western democracies, whereas up-and-coming emerging economies were on the rise. Brics was supposed to promote geoeconomic coordination, collaboration and cooperation among these five major non-Western economies. But the grouping has been reoriented and reshaped from a geoeconomic platform among emerging economies to a geopolitical projection in the intensifying conflict between "the West" versus "the Rest", which is now transformed into the "Global South". Fifteen years later, the tables have turned on the Brics.

Growth prospects among emerging markets are no longer stellar, while developed economies have regained economic dynamism based on a decade-long burst of technological innovation. Unsurprisingly, the Brics club has become geopolitical as its geoeconomic prospects shine less brightly and as its core members -- Russia and China -- are in conflict with the West.

This conflict pits Russia on the European continent against the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, underpinned by the US and UK. On the other hand, China is engaged in a geostrategic tussle with the US in the Indo-Pacific, especially in Southeast Asia. Other states that have contentious issues with the West, such as Iran, have been supportive of and sympathetic to the Brics.

Accordingly, new members were added earlier this year to what is now called "Brics Plus," namely Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates. Southeast Asian countries, such as Indonesia and Thailand, have shown interest over the past several years.

Southeast Asia is strongly wooed by the Brics because it is seen as a fast-growing region in the world economy and an intersection of major-power conflict between the US and China. For most of Southeast Asia, Brics is perceived as a means of geopolitical leverage vis-à-vis the West, despite limited geoeconomic benefit. On the other, joining the Brics risks taking Southeast Asian states into a conflict arena they have tried to avoid.

In the end, it is Thailand that opted to join while Indonesia opted out. Other Southeast Asian countries are standing aside for the time being. Thailand's cabinet under the leadership of Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin in late May 2024 formally announced a decision to join the Brics.

Last week, Foreign Minister Maris Sangiampongsa travelled to Russia for a Brics meeting to officially register Thailand's application. A major reason behind such a hasty and misguided move is domestic consumption. Mr Srettha has made little headway with entering the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) or striking a Schengen visa-free deal. His government's FTA negotiations with the EU are taking longer than expected, and even the EFTA-Thai FTA may not be concluded this year. Thailand's FTA playbook is slow and inadequate. Meanwhile, the government's 10,000 baht digital wallet scheme, "Land Bridge" and "soft power" programmes also are stymied and stuck. Brics is thus played to domestic audiences as a deliverable achievement.

Yet the other plausible driver is the Thaksin-Putin connection from two decades ago when both leaders were known to enjoy a strong and warm rapport. The fact that Mr Maris is seen as a Thaksin acolyte and nominee rather than a chief diplomat with autonomy and latitude reinforces the suspicion behind Thailand's Brics interest and closer ties with Russia, which has been alienated and ostracised by most of the international community, and overwhelmingly condemned by major United Nations resolutions since its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Thaksin is known to favour personal ties and diplomatic camaraderie at the top level, such as his evident rapport with Hun Sen, the former Cambodian prime minister who still wields decisive clout in his country.

It was odd for Thailand to be interested in joining OECD concurrently with Brics because these two outfits hold divergent objectives, one representing developed countries and the other the developing members of the Global South. Although it would take several years to complete, joining OECD makes more sense because its compliance criteria would put pressure on Thailand to usher in urgently needed domestic structural reforms. Joining Brics puts Thailand in dubious company whose direction and agenda appear inconsistent with Thailand's intention to stay in a moving balance between developed and developing countries.

This is why Indonesia has stayed out. Indonesia's interest in closely managing ties with both China and India, or even Brazil and South Africa, can be served bilaterally and on other platforms without the liabilities of being in a pact with Russia and Iran. Indonesian leaders are also wary of the Brics agenda and future anti-Western manoeuvres the group may take.

The stated Thai rationale for joining Brics, to seek more influence within the Global South, does not wash. There are other ways that Thailand can raise its game among developing countries. Never colonised and thus free of the colonial baggage that motivates the Global South, Thailand should be maximising its role as a bridge and broker between developed and developing countries.

Brics is a road Thailand should not be taking. Trying to join requires a more convincing explanation than the government has given.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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