The new strategic environment in East Asia, caused by recent leadership changes and growing nationalism, coupled with the rising confidence of Southeast Asian nations, will severely test the tenets of Thai foreign policy.
As the only independent country in the region without any baggage of colonisation, Thailand has pursued a well-known diplomacy of "mai kao kang krai" or "not siding with anyone". In other Thai diplomatic discourses, the term "yuen throng klang" or "stay in the middle" is also applied. But with the small twist, though, that Thailand will definitely change sides if there is a clear winner. Thailand's dramatic alliance with Japan during World War II and its turn around, as well as the close military collaboration with Communist China during the Cambodian conflict in the1980's, were prime examples.
This policy approach has been quite useful for Thai diplomacy to take advantage of the external environment, which has clearly defined players and outcomes. Over the past six decades, as an American ally, the country's foreign policy has followed the strategic path set by Washington along with its power projection and perceived threats.
Thailand was at the forefront of fighting against communism. Since the unification of Vietnam in 1975 and peace in Cambodia in 1991, Thai strategic values in the eyes of Western countries have receded quickly to the point of insignificance. Instead, Thailand's neighboring countries, which were once enemies or isolated, have been quickly and systematically building up their relations with existing super powers and emerging continental powers.
It's sad but true, Thailand is no longer the key regional player it used to be or often boasted of being. Pundits often blamed ongoing political uncertainties and polarisations that have further handicapped the country's diplomatic versatility and flexibility.
Frankly speaking, throughout Thai history, the country has often been confronted with internal turbulence and infighting. Successive Thai governments, both elected and non-elected, are used to adopting day-to-day survivalist policies. In retrospect, Thailand actually thrives in chaos. The quality of day-to-day resiliency, which the country holds dear, is becoming a huge liability in the globalised world of the 21st century with its many aspiring rising powers and competitors.
In this region, continuity and change is a great virtue. However, in the case of Thailand, the countries which have dealt with it would quickly conclude that there is only change but not continuity. In a nutshell, Thai policies, indeed any policies, are defined by continued change, all is indefinite. In comparison, Myanmar, as the region's latecomer, has won accolades throughout the world with its reform efforts. Despite its past atrocious record, the international community has expressed strong support for the societal transformation there. There is no sense of ambiguity related to the Thein Sein government's policies and future plans.
Next year, three outstanding issues will severely test Thai diplomacy. First, the Thai-Cambodian conflict over the Khao Praviharn/Preah Vihear Temple. Second, the role of Thailand as the country coordinator for Asean-China relations and finally, the management of the porous Thai-Myanmar border and myriads of issues associated with the 2,400 kilometre frontier. Of course, at the moment, there is a sense of deja- vu among the Thai top leaders that the relatively calm situation along the Thai-Cambodian border and the camaraderie-ties between Prime Minister Hun Sen and de facto Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra would positively influence the outcome of the International Court of Justice hearing in The Hague.
In mid-April next year, Thailand will put forward the final defence of its position on the Hindu temple. Whatever the court's verdict, which is expected later at the end of 2013 or early 2014, it will serve as the template for future Thai-Cambodian ties. Failure to comply with the decision will greatly affect the region's stability and damage community-building in Asean. So far, the personality-led diplomacy has trumped the one led by perceived national interest. Nobody knows how it will play out eventually.
As the Asean-China fixer, Thailand has dual roles for the next three years (2013-2015). Its first priority is to ensure there is tangible progress on their common effort to draft the bidding code of conduct in the South China Sea. Mutual trust between the two sides must be restored as soon as possible.
As such, Bangkok must also set paths through the Asean process for future engagements of major powers crisscrossing the resource-rich maritime areas. Whether Thailand can pull this off, granted its excellent ties with China, remains to be seen. In the 1980's, Bangkok was criticized by serving as a conduit for Beijing's southward expansion which is increasingly visible today. Thailand is not a sea-faring nation. Except for the 1979 Thai-Malaysia joint development project in the Gulf of Thailand, Bangkok does not have a good record in managing maritime borders with its neighboring countries (India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia and Vietnam). Challenges related to efforts to expand maritime territories, particularly over resource-rich areas, will occupy the Asean agenda in years to come.
Beyond the Asean-China nexus, it would be less complicated if Thailand was not a military alliance with the US. Whatever Thailand does, on its behalf or Asean's, will obviously be viewed with skepticism in the Western countries, especially in Washington. The tenets of Thai foreign policy as mentioned above will be tested, especially the notion of "stay in the middle". This concept has guided Thai diplomacy for centuries. In Thai thinking, it simply means that no decision will be made until there is a clear winner.
If the prevailing wind allows and the weather is clear, Thailand will jump on any triumphant ship. If such diplomatic behavior remains unchanged, the ambivalence of Thai positions and perceptions will impact on the overall Asean position as well. Therefore, Thai policymakers must come clean in defining the Thai national objectives and those of Asean at large. In this case, Thailand is not choosing sides but it must make its security views known. So, both the Asean countries and concerned players know Thailand's limits and potential.
Finally, managing the Thai-Myanmar border in years to come will be the most difficult diplomatic task the country has to face. Although Thailand has long experience with displaced persons and refugees, with more than three million Indochinese refugees throughout the 1970's and 1980's, the situation along the Western flank is a different ball-game. Armed ethnic minority groups straddling the frontier have not yet reconciled and integrated with the greater society in Myanmar.
Any attempt to strike a deal bilaterally between Thailand and Myanmar without taking into consideration the interests of ethnic minority groups would have negative consequences in the long run.
The future of an estimated four million workers, legal and illegal, along with their families would be another major headache. Thailand's resistance to join the 1951 Refugee Convention remains a big blind spot. Other transnational issues including criminal and various forms of trafficking—narcotics, human, wildlife, teak—also require participation of all stakeholders. Lest we forget, Thailand and Myanmar have engaged in border skirmishes several times over demarcation line disputes and spill-over fighting with ethnic minorities during the past three decades.
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