Thai 3Rs Secret to Handling US, China
By Mr Kavi Chongkittavorn, Senior Communications Advisor: Recent visits by the foreign ministers of China and the US created lots of buzz among the Thai public and diplomatic community regarding the direction of Thai foreign policy. Many questions were raised but no satisfactory answers were given.
Critics have constantly faulted the Prayut government's quiet diplomacy on all issues as a weakness for its failure to produce tangible results. Others, however, have a different view, citing Thailand's relations with great powers as stable and getting stronger by the day and its unpublicised role in transnational issues, ie, sustainable development, as pretty good.
Concerning the visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, there was a lot of diplomatic footwork put into the visits. How do you handle two rivals that are superpowers wanting to meet on the same day in Thailand? The answer was simply: 'Just relax, we have all the time we want. They are here to strengthen ties with Thailand, not to fight a war,' said a senior Thai official of the recent visits.
Earlier both ministers made plans to visit Bangkok on the same days before they headed to Bali for the G20 Foreign Ministers' Meeting. It was going to be hard to handle both dignitaries on the same occasion as the Thai parliament was also in session and the cabinet, especially the minister of foreign affairs, might be summoned to answer questions from MPs. Moreover, both Mr Wang and Mr Blinken agreed to meet on the sidelines of the G20 foreign ministers' meeting.
Then, Bangkok asked Mr Blinken to delay his trip to Bangkok after the Bali meeting. Earlier, he had planned to visit Bangkok back in mid-December, but this was abruptly postponed at the last minute even though his plane had landed at Don Mueang airport, as one of the reporters travelling with him had caught Covid-19. In the end, though, the wait was worthwhile because his latest visit further strengthened and deepened nearly two-century-old ties.
The outcomes of both visits have demonstrated Thailand's abundant ability to recalibrate its diplomacy amid the disruptive world. Over the past three years, Thailand has gradually tightened loose ends in its foreign policy as domestic politics have been reasonably stable. Public concerns and support over health security and economic recovery during the Covid-19 pandemic have been a blessing in disguise for Thailand to reassess its foreign trajectory.
The most noticeable development has been the re-engagement of the region's oldest friend and ally. The relations have rejuvenated their cooperation in new areas such as cyber security and space cooperation as well as new emerging threats. In addition, both countries also signed two important documents.
The first was the Thailand–US Communique on Strategic Alliance and Partnership, which reaffirms their alliance as well as common strategic goals. These include revitalising the post-Covid-19 economy, tackling climate change, cooperating on security and law enforcement, cybersecurity, space and technology collaboration, and promoting regional cooperation.
Equally important was the signing of the MoU on Promoting Supply Chain Resilience, which was delayed from December. This aims to promote collaboration to strengthen the supply chain and address disruptions to production, trade, and transportation, especially in critical industries.
Given the Thai government's priority of promoting US investment in new areas, this MoU will be extremely useful, particularly in new industries -- electric vehicles (EV) and high-capacity batteries, pharmaceuticals and industries that help promote the BCG Economy Model. However, Thailand's quick decision to be one of 14 founding signatories of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework was a significant move. But the one decision that earned applause from Washington was the unpublicised extradition to the US on June 16 of Dmitry Ukrainsky, a well-known hacker, who had been imprisoned in Thailand for the past ten years. He was wanted by the US government for fraud and money laundering.
With Mr Wang's visit, Thailand and China relations have also been further reinforced in their cooperation and commitment. They are planning a grandiose event to mark the 50th anniversary of their diplomatic ties in 2025. The formation of a tripartite committee comprising representatives from Thailand, China and Laos on the high-speed train was a barometer for the Sino-Thai train project being on track and that it will be completed in 2028. After years of dilly-dallying over the train deal, Thailand is now determined to finish the Nong Khai-Nakhon Ratchasima route by 2029 or earlier.
Thailand has also invited investors from all over the world to invest in the Eastern Economic Corridor, which will be the hub of the new economy, not only for Thailand but also for the region. To fulfil this objective, Thailand need all the support it can get for the Asia Pacific Leaders' Meeting in November. The host is hoping Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Thailand and attend the meeting. He has not made an officially visit to Thailand since he became president.
Most importantly, Thailand was the first ASEAN country to establish a Thai-Chinese communique with a shared future of stability, prosperity and sustainability. To ensure their longevity and purposefulness, Thailand added stability, prosperity and sustainability to the Chinese proposal. Both sides also stressed the need to revitalise their economies through trade promotion, transport facilitation of agricultural products, and cooperation in cyber security. It must be noted that the Thai-Chinese joint statement is quite similar to the Thai-US joint communique because their objectives are the same -- to help the country's economic and security development.
The 3Rs formula has enabled Thailand to court as well as sustain its dynamic ties with the US and China. Thai officials have admitted time and again that managing ties with these two superpowers is extremely difficult because of the interplay between the two countries' cultural, historical, political and economic linkages with Thailand.
The US often describes Thailand as its oldest and great friend while China refers to Sino-Thais as being the same family (zhong tai yi jia qin). Under the Biden administration, the US views China ties as a multi-layer relationship. It has an element of 'profound competition' at the heart of their relations. Then, there are also 'elements of cooperation' as well as 'elements of contestation'.
Just like many small countries trying to avoid direct or collateral damage from a US-China collision, Thailand's diplomatic statecraft, which saved the country from Western colonisation, still yields results with some tightening of nuts and bolts here and there.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are purely those of the authors and may not in any circumstances be regarded as stating an official position of the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia.