Maintaining a balanced foreign policy amid intense rivalry between the United States and China is one of challenges the government will have to grapple with.
After assuming the premiership, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin took his first foreign trip to New York where he is now attending the 78th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA78) in New York and related meetings which end today.
There, he has held talks with national leaders, heads of international organisations, and key people at both bilateral and multilateral levels.
He also met executives of global leading companies, such as Tesla CEO Elon Musk, to discuss possible investment opportunities in Thailand. Others include those from Microsoft, BlackRock, Google, Goldman Sachs, and Estee Lauder.
After the trip to the US, Mr Srettha expects to visit China late next month.
The visits to the two countries give an idea of how this government will pursue its foreign policy to achieve a balance in its relations with China and the US.
When he laid down policy for officials at the Foreign Ministry, Foreign Affairs Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara also impressed upon them the importance of the economy, security and technology.
He plans to invite Thai ambassadors in foreign countries to attend a meeting in Thailand and expressed confidence that under this government’s stewardship, Thailand will reclaim a more prominent role on the global stage.
Striking a balance
Panitan Wattanayagorn, a security and international relations expert, told the Bangkok Post that the government’s policy statement regarding foreign affairs which it unveiled in parliament on Sept 11 was not much different from those of previous governments.
“The foreign policies are similar. They include fostering cordial relations with neighbouring countries, and boosting Thailand’s role on the international stage for the sake of national interests and security.
“These are general principles, though some details are emphasised differently. Security is always interconnected with foreign relations.
“But the new government has placed much emphasis on management of internal affairs, such as military conscription, and procurement,” Mr Panitan said.
It remains to be seen how the new government will push for negotiations to end the crisis in Myanmar, he said, adding that Thailand should maintain neutrality as the previous government had already held talks with all sides involved in the conflict in Myanmar.
“This government should set out a clear plan on how to discuss the crisis with other Asean members.
“If we can do so, Thailand will rise to prominence. But I understand that we may not be ready yet,” Mr Panitan said.
He added that it is also important for Thailand to rebalance towards the US as the American economy is improving.
It is also necessary to address its human trafficking issues to improve Thailand’s rating in the US’s Trafficking In Persons Report, Mr Panitan said.
Thailand remains on Tier 2 in the 2023 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report issued by the US on June 15.
The country has been listed on this tier for two consecutive years.
He said Thai-US military ties and cooperation should also be strengthened in terms of military drills and equipment procurement.
Regarding relations with China, Pheu Thai has no clear details on how to pursue a foreign policy towards that country, Mr Panitan said.
“There is no clarity or details despite Pheu Thai having nine years [after the 2014 coup] to prepare for a return to power,” he said.
Asked about Mr Srettha’s planned trip to China which is seen as an attempt to balance Thailand’s relations with China and the US, Mr Panitan said there may be a misconception about striking a balance in relations with super powers.
“Thailand is too small a country to strike a balance between them. They can tear us into pieces if we try to adopt such a policy. We are not the UK, Germany or Japan.
Panitan Wattanayagorn, a security and international relations expert
“What we can do is to distance ourselves from China and the US on certain issues and get close to them on some matters such as tourism,” he said.
He also said the Brics grouping of emerging economies — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — are a force to be reckoned with, with the nations representing 42% of the global population.
Thailand can gain many benefits from trade with the group, though it remains to be seen what stance the new government will adopt on this, Mr Panitan said.
He said the previous government seemed to adopt what is called “too quiet diplomacy”, without enough publicity campaigns in pursuit of its foreign policy.
“The previous government [installed by the military coup] seemed to keep silent,” he said.
However, Mr Panitan said he is still wondering why the new government has yet to come up with vigorous policies to take a leading role in Asean.
“We have to wait and see [if such polices will materialise] after the PM’s trip in New York.
“If our proposals to end the Myanmar crisis and the Ukraine war are acceptable, Thailand will steal the show on the world stage.
“This government’s foreign policy seems to offer hope, but it has yet to crystallise into anything substantial,” Mr Panitan said.
Anekchai Rueangrattanakorn, a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University’s faculty of political science, told the Bangkok Post the government seeks to increase national income through proactive economic diplomacy with existing partners such as the European Union, and the Middle East and new markets such as India, Africa and South America.
Its foreign policy also aims to speed up free-trade agreement negotiations to boost growth, he said.
When Mr Srettha spelled out the government’s policy statement in parliament early this month, he highlighted Thailand’s neutrality between the two superpowers, China and the United States, and Asean’s centrality and neutrality, Mr Anekchai said.
He said Thailand’s international image had been hurt by the 2014 coup. Furthermore, the previous government’s foreign policy also tended to be pro-China.
“It is necessary to rebalance and recalibrate Thailand’s role. After the coup, the international community questioned Thailand’s stance on democracy,” he said.
“Mr Srettha’s speech at the UNGA78 should make the international community understand Thailand’s neutrality,” he added. However, China will remain as a key player in the economy, he said.
He said that when dealing with superpowers, Thailand should put itself in a strategic position where it can benefit most. “National interests are of primary importance,” he said.
Anekchai: Coup damages reputation
Oratai Soparat, a lecturer from Naraesuan University Social Science Faculty, said the new government’s foreign affairs policy should also focus on security along the western and southern borders of Thailand.
“We need to keep an eye on how the prime minister manages the issue — the Myanmar crisis and southern insurgency,” she said.
Ms Oratai said legitimacy building should come from Thailand respecting democratic values such as having elected senators, ensuring freedom of expression and abiding by international norms.
Based on Mr Srettha’s expertise in business, his visit to the UNGA78 and his trade talks should create trust among international communities in Thailand’s investment and economy.
Oratai: Abide by international norms
Promoting soft power
Pol Maj Gen Supisarn Bhakdinarinath, deputy leader of the Move Forward Party, said the new government should promote Thailand’s soft power such as Thai boxing, Thai food and local products, as well as new tourist spots and cultural World Heritage sites to attract more foreign tourists.
The government should also support efforts to manufacture carbon-neutral products for sale in the global market, which will give the economy an added boost, he said.
It remains to be seen what the prime minister will achieve after attending the UNGA78 and when the new government will step up efforts to pursue its foreign policy.
The National Security Council must also be consulted on issues related to keeping a balance between the US and China, he said.
Thailand also needs to maintain friendly relations with neighbouring countries as it still relies heavily on migrant workers from them, he said.
Pol Maj Gen Supisarn said the prime minister’s coming trip to China can be seen as a move to help achieve a balance in its relations with China and the US.