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First look at new Thai diplomatic tactics

In deciphering the 1,288-word Thai foreign policy statement announced last week, it is important to start at the very end. The last paragraph of "Thailand's Challenges: How to Thrive in Rising Geopolitical Uncertainty", put forward by Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara, was particularly revealing. He said succinctly that Thai diplomatic platforms must complement the government's domestic policies to improve people's standard of living and create job opportunities in order to get the country back in the global economic and political arena with dignity. In addition, it must enable the Thai business sector to grow and prosper domestically and internationally to increase confidence in Thailand.

In a nutshell, Thailand is pursuing proactive economic diplomacy. But to understand the Srettha Thavisin government’s overall foreign policy outlook, closer scrutiny beyond the economic aspect is required. As spelt out by Foreign Minister Parnpree, the recalibrated Thai foreign policy comprises two different but interconnected layers.

The first layer concerns the way the government plans to address the challenges Thailand is and will be facing in the future. These challenges are the result of strategic competition and polarisation among great powers in terms of geopolitics, economic performance and technology, which present their own challenges and opportunities.

Intensifying geopolitical competition among the world’s great powers is forcing countries to choose sides. The new international supply chain is centred around friend-shoring strategies, enabling allies and regional blocs to cooperate closer against rival groups. Then, there are challenges linked to economic disparities, such as the debt crisis, de-dollarisation, and lack of access to capital, which are preventing poorer countries from achieving the UN Sustainable Developmental Goals. Another area of concern is the rapid growth of technology, which has led to a battle for critical raw materials needed in advanced computing, such as semiconductors, and cyber security incidents. Even climate change, which has long been a common concern of the international community, could lead to the adoption of differing environmental standards that might impact international trade.

Last month, Prime Minister Srettha and Foreign Minister Parnpree addressed these challenges in various summits and high-level meetings held on the sidelines at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, such as the Sustainable Development Goals Summit, the Climate Ambition Summit, and the High-Level Dialogue for Financing Development. Both leaders emphasised three important messages — that Thailand fully supports multilateralism and cooperation with the UN; that the government is committed to green financing to achieve its climate goals; and that the government will continue to promote and protect human rights of all persons and improve access to healthcare.

The second layer has to do with the government’s plan to diversify the economy to achieve its climate goals, ramp up digitalisation and improve the agriculture sector. The government’s main objective is to enhance Thailand’s bargaining power and achieve balance in its relationship with other countries. To be effective, the country’s economic diplomacy must continue to be aligned with its traditional political and trading partners, such as the United States, China, Japan, and India.

The statement also suggests Thailand needs to intensify its relationship with its other key economic partners, such as South Korea, Asean, Australia, the European Union, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey. As such, Thailand must create an environment conducive to expanding multi-faceted partnerships, improving production standards and boosting infrastructure development to increase its capacity for longer-term competition.

In the context of the broader Asian region, Thailand needs to form a stronger bond with countries in the region, considering the world is going through the “Asian Century”. Indeed, the region is a major production hub with highly skilled workforces which can export their capital and technological know-how. Under this scenario, Thailand will continue to support efforts to ensure stability in Asia, turning it into a fulcrum for cooperation and peace, not confrontation. More importantly, Thailand wants to see a strong and united Asean at the centre of regional cooperation.

Closer to home, Mr Parnpree has said that Thailand’s neighbours remain a priority. For instance, one of his first trips abroad was to Cambodia, where he and Mr Srettha discussed bilateral trade, among other things.

The foreign minister said Thailand’s economic diplomacy is designed to respond to challenges arising from escalating geopolitical and economic rivalry. Over the past five days, Mr Srettha was in Hong Kong, Brunei, Singapore and Malaysia — all of which are important economic partners.

Mr Parnpree also highlighted four features of the new economic diplomacy. First, he said, it is based on the desire to catch up with the global challenges and to conform to universal democratic and human rights values. Second, it shows Thailand’s commitment to playing an active role in confronting challenges facing mankind, such as climate change. Third, he said, the strategy is designed to help advance the push for a digital economy, boost innovation and empower start-ups. Last but not least, he said, the government will expedite negotiations on free-trade agreements, especially with the European Union, and further strengthen ties with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to promote good corporate governance and green economic transformation in the country.

With regards to regional economic groupings, Thailand must expand its cooperation under Thai-initiated frameworks, such as the Asian Cooperation Dialogue (ACD), Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (Acmecs) and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec).

Mr Parnpree said the country’s economic diplomacy will feature extensive consultation with all stakeholders, as it requires a workforce with new skills and knowledge. As part of the process, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will convene a meeting with all ambassadors and concerned agencies from 97 countries to map out a common strategy through the “Team Thailand” mechanism, along with local stakeholders, to meet future challenges.

All things considered, as outlined in the speech, the Thai diplomatic vision is forward-looking, covering strategic and economic dimensions that would generate more income for the country. It is aimed at helping Thailand escape the middle-income trap by creating a conducive environment for growth amidst a myriad of challenges.

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