Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, left, smiles as he and Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai give a press conference on Thai-Indian cooperation. Somchai Poomlard
Thailand and India have taken seven and a half decades to transform their close historical and cultural ties into a more strategic trajectory. This is no easy task as their rulers are only too comfortable with their long-standing and relatively trouble-free friendships. However, the recent high-profile three-day visit by India’s External Affairs Secretary, Dr. S Jaishankar, has taken the dynamics of Thailand-India relations to a new level.
His trip to Thailand came at a time when India demonstrated to the rest of the world its steadfast independent and neutral foreign policy. Thailand is on the same page as India. With the rapidly changing geopolitical landscape, Dr Jaishankar reiterated in meetings with his Thai counterpart that the two countries need to do more together. In his speech at Chulalongkorn University, Dr Jaishankar did not shy away from talking about Thailand and its strategic potential, urging the country to think “in much broader terms, keeping in mind the vision to long term”.
He also referred to Thailand’s proven diplomatic finesse, citing the two countries’ century-old efforts to protect their cultural identities and independence. As such, both countries need to work harder to create a multipolar Asia at its core. “This will only happen if we Asian countries consolidate our independence and expand our freedom of choice,” he stressed, adding that Thailand, in many ways, has been an example in this regard, because she had lived through the most complex conflicts of the 20th century.
Well said, Ajarn Jaishankar. Thailand has always done that. The difference is now evident and India will become a much closer strategic partner to Thailand. This will serve as a new model for their partnership in the decades to come.
Historically, culture and religion have been the main links between the two nations. While these traditional ties will continue, further diversification of their cooperation is expected due to the new opportunities that come with growing regional dynamism both economically and in security. The Covid-19 pandemic has had negative impacts, but it has also been a blessing in disguise, as they have now both learned that they have the potential and ability to forge cooperation in new areas, especially in the much-vaunted Indo-Pacific region. .
During the recent Joint Commission for Bilateral Cooperation, Dr Jaishankar and his Thai counterpart Don Pramudwinai agreed to revitalize comprehensive cooperation which has been disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, and to strengthen mutual visits and dialogue. They also signed a memorandum of understanding on cooperation in health and medical research and another covering cooperation and collaboration in broadcasting between Prasar Bharati, India, and the Thai Public Broadcasting Service (Thai PBS). . The two countries will also promote new exchanges in the fields of trade, tourism, joint security exercises and training. Cybersecurity and ICT are two new areas that will be on the agenda in the coming months. In addition, they also agreed to reinvigorate economic institutional mechanisms such as the establishment of a joint trade committee and business forums.
Thai investors should be encouraged to enter the Indian market. For the moment, only 38 Thai companies, mainly in the fields of infrastructure, agribusiness and real estate, are present there. Stronger private sector engagement would increase understanding and appreciation of India’s economic advantages. Let’s not forget that when it comes to startups, India has a total of 105 unicorns.
India is Thailand’s biggest trading partner in South Asia, with a two-way trade volume of $15 billion last year, up from a peak of $12.46 billion in 2019 before the pandemic. Over the past five years, the tourism sector has witnessed a rapid increase in Indian visitors to Thailand. In 2016, only 1.04 million Indians chose Thailand as their destination. Three years later, the number had doubled to almost 2 million, with more than 330 weekly flights between the two countries.
After Thailand opened its borders earlier this year, there has been a new phenomenon in the history of Thai tourism. Indian tourists surpassed all new international arrivals from January to June this year with a total of 294,000. This new trend has prompted Thai tourism strategists to think about new incentives to attract more Indian tourists.
Mr. Don and Dr. Jaishankar also highlighted the importance of the 1,400 kilometer trilateral highway linking India, Myanmar and Thailand. which will connect ground transportation between South Asia and Southeast Asia. It would also enhance cooperation between ASEAN members and South Asia. Unfortunately, this connectivity project has been delayed due to recent developments in Myanmar. Both parties have agreed to promote additional sea and air connectivity.
As leading members of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec), Thailand and India are committed to working closely together to move the 25-year-old regional organization forward. Strange as it may seem, when the idea was conceived in 1997, just after the Asian economic crisis, there was a strong sense of deja vu that Southeast Asia and South Asia would form one entity. consolidated to further promote economic cooperation due to its large population. and potential markets.
As current president, Thailand wants to rejuvenate Bimstec to promote prosperity, sustainability and openness to increase the bloc’s overall leverage. With its rich marine and energy resources, closer cooperation would benefit all members of the coastline. Indeed, these are prerequisites for preparing the region to recover from the negative impacts caused by the pandemic. Therefore, it is imperative that Bimstec members pull together, forge closer ties and improve economic integration and strength.
Given the current strategic competition between the great powers, especially the ongoing US-China rivalry, the Bay of Bengal is currently seen as a new battleground. In the Indo-Pacific era, Thai strategists view it as a newly contested sphere of influence for outside powers. The bay is home to 1.58 billion people and is an important shipping route connecting the Indian and Pacific oceans.
While Thailand and India are now ready to step out of their comfort zones, their relationship will never be the same. They now have to vigorously implement a plethora of cooperation agreements at the individual, bilateral and collective levels.
A seasoned reporter on regional affairs
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a seasoned journalist specializing in regional affairs