11 July 2024

The new government is expected to pursue a foreign policy focused on yielding economic dividends, with proactive diplomacy targeted at securing more market access around the globe.

The government of Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin might reposition the country’s stance to better cope with geopolitical conflicts and competitions.

The issue of economy is important for foreign policy, but security matters as well, according to Professor Ukrist Pathmanand from Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Asian Studies. He, however, added that Srettha’s Cabinet has no minister or deputy keen on international security.

The prime minister himself and Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Kukara have solid backgrounds in business and economic relations, but not security issues.

Sutin Klangsang, who became only the fifth civilian to run the Defense Ministry, also has no experience in security and military affairs, he said.

Lack of security experts

“Defense diplomacy matters in international relations these days,” Ukrist said in an interview with Thai PBS World. “Nothing is wrong with having a civilian minister for the security job, but knowledge and skill are important.”

In order to fill the gap, Prime Minister Srettha has chosen the newly appointed Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, Songwit Noonpakdi, to join him on his first trip to the United Nations General Assembly in New York in the middle of this month, according to Ukrist.

The government is scheduled to deliver its policy statement to Parliament on September 11 before Srettha’s trip to the United States for the UN annual meeting from September 18-23. The prime minister, the commander-in-chief of the Thai Armed Forces, and the foreign minister would have a chance to meet and introduce themselves to foreign leaders at the world’s biggest international forum.

Pro-West policy?

The first foreign trip of the new government’s stop honchos and their solid educational background — three senior government officials have obtained degrees from the US — could send a strong signal to the world that the administration might look up to Washington, said Ukrist.

“The new direction of Thailand’s foreign policy is quite the opposite of the previous government, which obviously leaned towards China,” he said.

Srettha graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Massachusetts and a master’s in business administration from Claremont Graduate School in the US. Songwit graduated from the Virginia Military Institute. Parnpree obtained a master’s and Ph.D. in public administration from Southern California University and Claremont Graduate University respectively.

The policy statement paper leaked to the public earlier said that disputes among superpowers in terms of economic and security are major challenges for Thailand, to position itself as well as protect national interest, promote peace, and enhance security for the Thai people.

Tough choices

The challenge in real terms is how the new Cabinet is going to handle the ongoing fierce geopolitical rivalry among the US, China, and Russia, according to Western diplomats.

The new government needs a solution to solve the impasse over a submarine engine that the Royal Thai Navy is encountering with China. The original contract had mentioned a German engine, but China’s failure to procure the engine from the German supplier has forced it to offer the option of a Chinese-made one.

In the meantime, the government has been urged to continue to convince the US to sell its most sophisticated F-35 fighter jets to the Thai Air Force.

“A simple question is how would the new government vote in any UN resolution against Russia over the Ukraine war?” said a diplomat from a Western country on condition of anonymity. Prayut Chan-o-cha’s government had disappointed the Western alliance, as it abstained from a vote at the United Nations last year that condemned Russia’s annexation of four eastern regions of Ukraine.

Dulyapak Preecharush, Thammasat University’s deputy director of the Institute of East Asian Studies, suggested that the new government strengthen ties with the US in the framework of Indo-Pacific strategy while highlighting economic cooperation with China.

“Of course, Thailand can maintain a certain level of military cooperation with China. In the meantime, the democratic-looking government [led by the Pheu Thai Party] has a good opportunity to enhance bilateral ties with the US,” he told Thai PBS World. Russia cannot be avoided but Thailand does not need to get closer to Moscow, he added.

Louder voice on Myanmar

Opposition MP Kannavee Suebsang from the Fair Party posted on his Facebook page recently that the new government should use a soft approach on foreign affairs, with greater emphasis on human rights and humanitarian aspects, rather than just economic and security-related. The international community expected the so-called democratic government of Thailand to play a leading role in humanity, he said.

“Of course, we need to look at the economic and security aspects, but it’s difficult for a country such as Thailand to play any significant roles in those fields,” he posted on his Facebook and added that Thailand faced humanitarian challenges after a military coup in neighboring Myanmar in 2021.

There have been calls since the previous administration under Prayut Chan-o-cha for Thailand to open a humanitarian corridor or a safe zone for refugees fleeing the conflict in Myanmar. The government should prepare for the influx of at least 300,000 displaced persons from the neighboring country as violence takes place from time to time, he said.

Dulyapak said the new government should speak out louder about the Myanmar crisis, championing the peace process as well as border security. The government can no longer remain silent about violence and human rights violations in the neighboring country but it cannot take too harsh a stance towards the junta-backed government, either.

“Why don’t we try engaging with all stakeholders and initiate a dialogue process beginning with non-sensitive issues in conducive conditions,” he said.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk