Thailand prepares to show Asean leadership

Thailand prepares to show Asean leadership

Larger role in regional bloc and free-trade talks with EU beckon in 2018 as US recognition of junta gives government a bigger entree into the world stage

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha at the 31st Asean Summit in Manila in mid-November. Thailand will spend much of the year preparing to take over as chairman of Asean from Singapore in 2019. (Photo courtesy Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha at the 31st Asean Summit in Manila in mid-November. Thailand will spend much of the year preparing to take over as chairman of Asean from Singapore in 2019. (Photo courtesy Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

As Thailand climbs back onto the world stage its foreign policy is likely to take on a more prominent role this year, when the kingdom celebrates 200 years of ties with the United States and Bangkok prepares to take over the chair of Asean in 2019.

EU ministers agreed near the end of 2017 to resume political contacts "at all levels" with Thailand after a freeze lasting more than three years, lending new legitimacy to the 2014 coup-installed government as it looks to the transition to democracy via the much-anticipated general election in November.

This is also the final year of Thailand's role as a coordinator of Asean-EU relations and the end of the latest four-year strategic plan rolled out by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

One of the key foreign affairs events for the nation last year was the visit of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to the White House following an invitation by President Donald Trump.

This year will no doubt see Gen Prayut -- in his role as the head of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) -- carry on Thailand's balancing act of diplomacy, friendship and trade with Washington and Beijing, while also continuing the thaw in ties with Europe.

Mended bridges with the latter also opens a window for talks on a Thailand-EU free-trade agreement, not to mention closer cooperation in tackling the problem of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU).

Bangkok expects the EU to lift its "yellow card" warning over the IUU fishing issue this year after the government set about cleaning up the industry. Under threat of an EU-imposed export ban if it failed to act, the government rooted out human trafficking and unfair practices while working to better protect the human rights of migrant workers.

In November, Asean and the EU agreed to join hands to push the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) outlined by the United Nations, and exchange best practices on the role of regional integration in tackling such problems as climate change and developmental gaps.

Thailand has also been trumpeting the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej's Sufficiency Economy Philosophy (SEP) as a guideline for sustainable development, especially via Thailand's International Cooperation Agency.

The United Nations and World Bank have accepted the legitimacy of the late King's SEP, creating a niche area of expertise for Thailand to capitalise on, according to Chulalongkorn University international relations expert Panitan Wattanayagorn.

"This is an area in which Thailand has an outstanding record and a level of expertise it can offer to the world," said Assoc Prof Panitan, a political scientist who also serves as an adviser to Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon.

Thailand has also gained much experience in dealing with problems relating to migrant workers over the past four decades despite not having ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, he added.

The government also came to the rescue of the Rohingya last year, offering humanitarian assistance after many thousands fled Myanmar to escape persecution by its military.

Former deputy premier Surakiart Sathirathai, who also served as a previous foreign minister, was even invited to serve on Myanmar's advisory board on the Rohingya issue.

However, some pundits say the government has been too inward-looking over the past few years.

The junta rose to power three years ago with the goal of promoting peace, security and stability at home.

Many believe the military regime has done well in serving this purpose -- but at the expense of looking beyond Thailand's borders to seek international acceptance or show leadership and initiative when it comes to foreign affairs.

This could be the year that changes that, according to some experts.

Surachart Bamrungsuk, a professor at Chulalongkorn University's international relations department, expects the government will continue its "Look East" policy by developing even closer ties with China economically, militarily and in terms of infrastructure projects, including high-speed train deals.

"Thailand will continue to seek legitimacy for the military government and acceptance from the global superpowers," said Prof Surachart.

At the same time, it would want to stand on its own two feet and show it is no one's lap dog.

"One of the government's surprising and outstanding achievements last year was voting against the US at the UN General Assembly on the issue of endorsing Jerusalem as Israel's capital -- even though it had been expected to abstain to please Washington," he added.

Others say Thailand lacks a clear foreign policy direction and that relations with China remain on a shaky footing.

Prapat Thepchatree, director of Asean Studies at Thammasat University, said Gen Prayut was snubbed by Beijing last May when he was not invited to China's Belt and Road Initiative Summit.

He said Thailand should establish a long-term strategy for escaping the so-called "middle-income trap" and strive for greater acceptance as a middle power.

Meanwhile, according to the Defence Ministry, Gen Prawit is "very satisfied" with military ties with neighbouring countries as there have been no major conflicts since the NCPO took power.

But Prof Prapat said Thailand should initiate proactive strategies to develop relations with these countries.

Assoc Prof Panitan, on the other hand, said the country's foreign policy can be summed up in two words: "Complex engagement".

Thailand now ranks as an ally of Washington on the security front and a trading partner of growing importance with China while also forging stronger bonds with Japan and other countries, Assoc Prof Panitan added.

The kingdom needs to work harder to become a creative economy and ramp up productivity levels in the manner of Singapore, he said.

Singapore serves as this year's Asean chair with the theme of "resilient and innovative".

It said it aims to build collective resilience against common threats such as terrorism and violent extremism, step up efforts to establish the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, develop human resources and promote Asean unity and connectivity. This will give Thailand much to build on when it takes over in 2019.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' current strategic plan includes promoting good relations with countries in Southeast Asia and seeing Thailand play a more constructive roles in moving forward the Asean Community.

Its other goals include elevating the nation's competitiveness and fostering more economic cooperation.

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