Thailand needs a more proactive foreign policy

The Ukraine-Russia conflict, China-Taiwan tensions or even the situation in Myanmar may seem far away and irrelevant to us in Thailand. Most Thais wouldn’t imagine that Thailand foreign policy has an effect on our lives, to certain extent, or that quiet Thai diplomacy on those issues matters. Some may wonder why we should care about Thai foreign policy.

To find the answer, Thai PBS World, working with Asia News Network, hosted a forum, called ‘Thai Foreign Policy, Regional Politics and the Media’ at the Sukosol Hotel Bangkok on November 24th. The topic for the first session focused on Thai foreign policy challenges in 2023 and beyond. The participants were Former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, a former Foreign Affairs Permanent Secretary, Sihasak Phuangketkeow, the Security Advisor to the Thai Government, Dr. Panitan Wattanayagorn, and Director of the Centre for International Trade Studies at the University of Thai Chamber of Commerce, Dr. Aat Pisanwanich. The session was moderated by Senior Director for News, Thai Public Broadcasting Service (Thai PBS) Thepchai Yong.


Lost pivotal role in ASEAN

Abhisit Vejjajiva expressed his view of Thailand’s foreign policy which, he said, is still based on the same assumptions, which focus on continuity and are rather conservative. Our international policy must take into account the interests of the nation, whether it be security or economics. It pays special attention, however, to immediate benefits. This passive approach attempts to avoid any impact, thus our expression needs to be extra cautious, he said.

As far as ASEAN is concerned, Sihasak said, Thailand was a leader in this region, but now we have lost that prestigious position. The countries that outperformed Thailand on the international stage are Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam. Obviously, Thailand is fourth.

He added that “this is a reflection of a fact, and that fact is that we are losing our strategic importance. This is critical, because a decent foreign policy must have a sense of strategic significance”.

The classic style of Thai diplomacy is to remain neutral in all circumstances, and we are excellent at maintaining this conservative approach. In the past, it helped that the country found the perfect solutions from many international conflicts.

In the new world order, however, the international situation and context have changed overwhelmingly. Thailand’s same old passive stance is losing its magic. As a result, we have lost our leadership role in ASEAN.

Despite having hosted the recent APEC Summit, Thailand failed to make the most of this excellent opportunity. On the contrary, Indonesia as host for G20 Summit took the bull by the horns. In Abhisit’s view, Thai and Indonesian international approaches are totally different.

“The perception of Thailand and Indonesia is a clear contrast. Indonesia’s president travelled to meet both Russian and Ukrainian leaders. He attempted, at any cost, to demonstrate that he wanted to play a mediator role in resolving the problem, more or less. Ask if people in the world, who were watching this, anticipate that he could really solve the problem, I don’t think so, and I believe that, if you ask him, he would admit that it would be very difficult, but he saw that it was appropriate to do so, which I think, was appreciated. As a result, Indonesia’s international status is outstanding”.


National interests

Meanwhile, Dr. Panitan Wattanayagorn pointed out that what prevents Thailand from adopting a proactive approach is the uncertainty in domestic politics, and what the establishment should do is to adapt our foreign policy to respond to Thais’ demands and complement their wellbeing.

“To participate in any free trade area or agreement, you must be certain that we (Thailand) would benefit. This must be clear, right? The interests of the nation and Thai people must be calculated clearly. So far, we have let the bureaucrats calculate our interests, but I feel that there is a gap. When we plan a national strategy, the bureaucrats think this is beneficial and aligns with their requirements, yet this is different from the people’s requirements. For example, we do not benefit from cheap Russian oil prices, whereas India does. We then ask ourselves, why don’t Thais get that benefit?”

Dr. Aat Pisanwanich said, in addition, that Thailand should have been prepared to embrace major conflict between Russia and Ukraine, unfortunately we failed to do so. We have also handled other crises poorly and lost opportunities to gain advantages from the foreseeable changes.

“We already knew that the Laos-China railway would be complete within 5 years, yet Thailand failed to prepare for this. Isn’t it weird? What next? We lost economic opportunities on this matter. Eventually, we have to start at the beginning, from what they have already completed”.


Time to change?

Dr. Panitan believes, however, that Thailand can rebalance its foreign policy, similar to the Former Foreign Affairs Permanent Secretary’s opinion, who emphasised that, to pursue a non-aligned foreign policy, other countries must recognise Thailand’s importance first. Then, our international position will be respected. He also thinks that Thailand has the full potential to have a more proactive approach.

“I believe we have the potential, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials are ready to exercise their abilities as well. We have the potential. For example, everyone accepts our role in the past. They have confidence in us because our foreign policy has been balanced and always constructive, never extreme. We can build bridges between parties who hold different positions. We can do this. The problem is, however, the policy. Like Abhisit just said, it’s passive or minimalist. I do not underestimate domestic constraints or the outside challenges, but I do believe that we can make it”, said Dr. Panitan.

In the year to come, Thai foreign policy will definitely face serious challenges. Experts believe that the policy needs to be adjusted, to bring it in line with the changing world order, and that Thai officials are capable of achieving this. The question is whether the policymakers are aware and courageous enough to make that change.

By Jeerapa Boonyatus


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