April 15, 2012

Growing ties with Thailand

Gains from India’s Look East policy
by Rahul Mishra

WITH India’s investigating agencies clearly signalling that New Delhi and Bangkok blasts were closely linked, it is more than evident that India and Thailand have to work together in fighting the menace of terrorism. Intriguingly, on March 31 itself, yet another series of bomb blasts rocked Yala, a city in Southern Thailand.

Terrorism has once again put India and Thailand on the same page in terms of finding ways and means to ensure safety and security of their citizens. This is in tune with a number of pledges made during Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s India visit this year.

As part of the 2012 Republic Day celebrations, New Delhi had invited Shinawatra to be the chief guest. Yingluck, the first female Prime Minister of Thailand, brought along a 100-strong delegation and paid a three-day visit. Conceivably, there could have been no better time than Republic Day to host the Thai leader when India is celebrating two decades of the Thai dimension of its Look East policy as also the 65th anniversary of the Indo-Thai engagement.

Two decades ago, when Prime Minister Narasimha Rao officially flagged off the Look East policy, Thailand was among the countries in focus. Demonstrating India’s interest in engaging its eastern neighbour, Rao had visited Bangkok in 1993. Since then the relationship has only moved forward.

However, the situation was quite different during the Cold War years. The imperatives of Cold War strategic dynamics inevitably drew them apart. India’s policy of Non-Alignment with a tilt towards the USSR was in contrast to Thailand’s worldview, which was a partner with the US and suspicious of the socialist block. Though the power block politics hindered New Delhi and Bangkok from being close to each ohter, they still maintained warmth in formal ties. This was largely due to the fact that no contentious issues existed between them.

In the post-Cold War era, changes at systemic and sub-systemic levels motivated India to reorient its foreign and economic policy priorities. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation’s (SAARC’s) dismal success compounded India’s frustration, leading to a search for friends beyond South Asia.

As an inward-looking, snail-paced Indian economy attempted to open up, it naturally looked at ASEAN countries as role models and potential partners. Thailand didn’t disappoint India on that count. However, the 1997 financial crisis hit the Thai economy hard, and it took Bangkok several years to get back to normalcy. It was only in 2004 that India signed the Early Harvest Scheme with Thailand; and yet it was among the first countries with which India had inked such a deal.

What started as a small step towards an FTA with Thailand in 2004 culminated into inking of the 2009 India-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement in Goods. That trade has become a significant player in bilateral ties is evident from the point that during the first decade of this century, the total trade volume went up six times, crossing the $ 6 billion mark in 2010. The two countries are working to increase it further, which is evident from discussions on enhancing cooperation in areas such as energy, food industries and petroleum, and inking of six important MoUs. It is hoped that by 2014 bilateral trade will cross the $14 billion mark. The proposed Chennai- Dawei corridor project, which aims to link India and Thailand, is an added advantage of the relationship.

Incidentally, India’s engagement with Thailand and its Look East policy have been complimented by Thailand’s Look West policy, started in 1996. As a consequence, bilateral ties have gone from strength to strength. Today, there are several regional platforms which India and Thailand share. India is an integral member of the Asia Cooperation Dialogue — a Thai initiative.

While one finds enough reasons to feel good about Indo-Thai ties, a lot needs to be done to realise the fullest potential of the partnership between the two countries and take it to new heights. Needless to say that there cannot be a better moment than now for joining hands to take up responsibilities — fighting transnational terrorism, handling neighbourhood problems as also promoting bilateral cooperation.

First, and perhaps a challenge of most immediate nature, is tackling the mounting threat of terrorism. Both are multi-ethnic and pluralistic countries and are facing daunting challenges of drug trafficking, armed insurgency and terrorism. India’s Jammu and Kashmir and Northeastern provinces are infested with insurgents while Thailand is struggling with them in its southern part. Learning from each other’s experience may help India and Thailand in dealing with the problem resolutely. It’s time India and Thailand comprehensively analysed the lessons of the recent bomb blast as also devised mechanisms to avert such incidents in future.

The second is the unfolding scenario in Myanmar, which is undergoing swift changes at both domestic and foreign relations’ fronts. India and Thailand not only share boundaries with Myanmar but are also important stakeholders. Ethno-cultural linkages across the border integrate them in numerous ways. Therefore, it is imperative for both New Delhi and Bangkok to find ways and means to ensure that Myanmar undergoes peaceful transition without causing any humanitarian distress to its neighbours.

Third, China’s rise and its increasing assertiveness has been a matter of concern for both India and Thailand. While both are willing to partner with, and benefit from China’s rise, apprehensions still linger on. A hedging strategy is what New Delhi and Bangkok are seemingly practicing. Nevertheless, India, Thailand and other ASEAN countries have to devise ‘safe modes’ in dealing with a rising China in order to ensure a peaceful Asia.

Fourth, the increasing US presence in the region is comforting for many, including Thailand --- a major non-NATO ally of the US. India’s bonhomie with the US is likely to strengthen its acceptability as a major player- considering that President Obama wants India to “engage the East”. While New Delhi is not likely to get into any alliance with the US or any other country, it has to get engaged in regular strategic dialogues with Thailand and other ASEAN countries to carve out a greater role for itself in future.

Fifth, while New Delhi and Bangkok are trying to build the Bay of Bengal sub-region as a zone of multifaceted growth and prosperity, slow-paced organizations such as BIMSTEC and MGC kill the optimism about it. Finding ways to tackle transnational maritime challenges also demand their attention.

A rather unusual yet significant challenge for both countries is managing urban spaces. The year 2011 will always be remembered as one of the worst years in Bangkok’s history, when uncontrolled floods swept across the city. Incidentally, Mumbai also faced a similar situation in 2006. Considering that both India and Thailand are ill equipped in dealing with such issues, it makes sense for them to jointly devise disaster management strategies.

Sixth, India’s Look East policy has accrued significant dividends for the country at multilateral politico-strategic fronts, and it is now seen as a responsible stakeholder in the region. However, it has to devise a long-term strategy to maintain sustained focus.

While more substantive India-Thai interactions and regular follow-up meetings at all levels are required, it is beyond doubt that the recent bomb blasts in India and Thailand have made the two countries realise the need to strengthen communication and information exchange. However, putting words into action is perhaps the biggest challenge facing New Delhi and Bangkok. It is time to ensure that initiatives pledged lately are supplemented by regular follow-up meetings and substantive measures.n

The writer is associated with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

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