Thais favour proactive foreign policy
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Thais favour proactive foreign policy

The Thai public generally views engaging with the international community and regional integration as beneficial. Most Thais see their nation as part of a dynamic and rising region, and they believe Thailand needs to increase international cooperation and play a more active global role in addressing emerging challenges.

These insights come from a survey by the Asia Foundation, "Thai Public Views on International Issues", released last week. The survey was the first to examine Thai public opinion on foreign policy and international affairs.

The survey was conducted nationwide from July to November 2023, during an important political transition as the new civilian elected government -- a Pheu Thai-led coalition -- took power and pledged a more proactive diplomatic approach.

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin reiterated that Thailand is committed to multilateralism and respect for human rights. The new administration said it would also promote foreign trade and attract direct foreign investment under economic-centered diplomacy.

The researchers interviewed 1,650 urban Thai adults across all regions, finding that a high percentage were knowledgeable about international issues, allowing for more in-depth questioning.

Interestingly, the survey found that the urban Thai population is nearly evenly split in the direction of the country.

Half believe Thailand is headed in the wrong direction compared to 46% who see it as moving in the right direction. Younger respondents were particularly pessimistic, with 67% saying Thailand is on the wrong track.

However, four out of five Thais believe Southeast Asia as a whole is heading in a positive direction, and an overwhelming 97% see Asean membership as beneficial for the country. Around half would like Thailand to take on a greater regional leadership role.

On the roles of the US and China, the Thai public generally views both countries as having a similar, largely positive impact on peace and security in Asia.

They believe the two powers do more good than harm for regional stability, with their economic ties and educational links seen as more valuable than military or governance influence.

A clear majority of 66% see China as the most influential country in Asia today, far outpacing the 22% who view the US as the most influential.

However, Thais anticipate that the US and China will remain the two most important countries in Thailand's future, with 72% expecting China to be the dominant power in the next decade compared to only 15% for the US.

Most Thais want to maintain positive relations with both superpowers, avoiding siding with either, though 19% would like Thailand to align more closely with one or the other. When asked about a potential US-China armed conflict, 86% of Thais preferred neutrality rather than taking a side.

Significantly, well-informed Thai respondents view China and the US as generally benign or friendly, with 52% seeing China as friendly to Thailand, compared to 33% who view it as exploitative -- a net positive gap of 19 percentage points. The US has a similar 17-point net positive advantage, with 44% seeing it as friendly versus 27% as exploitative.

Among those Thais who want their country to become a close partner of China or the US, there is a slight preference for China. However, younger Thais who choose a side tend to favour aligning with the US.

The survey also revealed Thai public sentiment towards regional issues, particularly the Myanmar crisis. While foreign experts often view the Myanmar situation as a top priority for Thailand, only 2% of Thai respondents share this view, and just 9% believe Thailand should prioritise helping Myanmar refugees.

However, most Thais support Thailand's deepening economic ties with Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos, and 20% want the government to assist migrants from these neighbouring countries.

Notably, Thai respondents view Cambodia, Myanmar, and Russia negatively. Cambodia and Myanmar have significant net negative gaps of 23 and 21 percentage points, respectively, regarding being seen as exploitative rather than friendly.

Russia has a smaller 4-point net negative gap, with 45% of Thais viewing it as neutral. The rest of Asean countries and dialogue partners are seen as friendly.

The survey also asked the respondents about the new government's highest priorities for Thai foreign policy. Most identified economic growth and national security, followed by the air/haze situation and climate change.

The survey found that a slight majority of 54% are dissatisfied with the state of Thai democracy, particularly among younger citizens at 59%. Yet Thais overwhelmingly see democracy as the best form of governance, with 90% of youth and 84% overall believing it is "always the best way".

When asked if Western countries like the US and Europe can do more to promote democracy and human rights in Thailand, most respondents agreed, with 71% of young people and 66% overall in favour. It is also important to note that older Thais were slightly less likely to agree, at 63%.

While older Thais are more sceptical about external influences on Thai democracy, a plurality, though not a majority, believe such influences can be beneficial. In contrast, younger Thais tend to view external democratic support more positively.

The survey also observed that changes in Thailand's foreign policy and regional leadership would be highly consequential for mainland Southeast Asia, Asean, and geopolitics more broadly.

As the region's second-largest economy and the geographic centre of the Mekong subregion, Thailand routinely influences the security, migration, energy, and economic integration of neighbouring countries.

This 54-page survey report provides invaluable insights for policymakers and other stakeholders seeking to understand Thai public sentiment on foreign policy and regional cooperation issues. It should be on their reading lists.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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