Thailand in the New Geopolitics of Asia

Thailand has a long and demonstrated history of balancing its foreign policy against big powers. But the new geopolitical dynamics of the region present new challenges. Eminent Thai experts and thought leaders convened to discuss the current state of play, identify emerging trends and develop strategic options.

Whether it was during imperialism, the World Wars or the Cold War – Thailand has navigated tightrope walks while ensuring its core national interests remain intact. This has given the Thai foreign policy a nickname and frequently characterised by the metaphor of “bamboo”, bending with the wind to emphasise the strength of its flexibility and the sense of pragmatic bandwidth within which it can operate. It is also interesting to note that Thailand is America’s oldest ally in Asia but a combination of external and internal forces also draws Bangkok closer to Beijing. What this means is that as the US-China rivalry intensifies, so does the push and pull of geopolitics. Enormous challenges and opportunities present itself for Thailand as it navigates through a turbulent external environment looking to find new development pathways.

To discuss these trends impacting the country and the challenges, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Office for Regional Cooperation in Asia and the FES Thailand Office, jointly with the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, convened a diverse group of policy makers, journalists, thought leaders, academics, and security personnel for a two-day workshop. Facilitated by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Executive Education team, the experts discussed the country’s current geopolitical challenges and devised policy strategies that will help Thailand come out on top of the major emerging trends in the region.

Current state of play

The pressures of great power rivalry and new challenges presented by the fall out of the Russia-Ukraine conflict play out in Thailand as rising energy costs and supply chain constraints while it is still dealing with the negative impacts of the coronavirus crisis. On the regional and external front, it is faced with a restive situation in the neighbourhood and the possibility of adverse impacts of climate change.

Yet, all this also presents several opportunities. It has a well-positioned geographic location and possibility to develop competitive advantages in a global supply chain revaluation. And despite the rivalry, it continues to have an ability to attract investments from a variety of sources including Japan and China. Additionally, Thailand finds itself contributing to the discourse on the development of technology and its governance.

Emerging Trends

Several divergent, including contradictory trends play out in Thailand. A tense geopolitical environment leading to the need for increase in defence spending contends with a demographic challenge that includes declining birth rates and an ageing society. These go alongside rising inequality and a polarised society where populist nationalism rears its head. Needless to say, environmental pressures are already adding a negative mix to this. The positives are backed by the promise of technology and the possibilities to harness a global collective around building greater resilience. These include utilizing technology in the age of remote work, creating new capacities or increasing global cooperation on technology governance and contributing to it.

Strategic options and policy recommendations

Participants collectively came up with strategic options and policy recommendations to help the Southeast Asian nation navigate the dynamic geopolitical and geo-economic environment and continue to chart a development path that centres creating greater agency, competitive advantages that can harness global tailwinds and a future-proof economic model.  Invariably there emerged large number of domestic and foreign policy priorities. There was an emphasis on policy options in which Thailand can retain its unique position, steer through tension and come out on top. Some of these included:

  1. Strengthen institutions for consolidation of democracy: Most participants agreed that democratising Thailand is very important for further economic, technological, and social development of the country. As a way towards it, the participants expressed the need of law-enforcement and constitutional reform. Furthermore, a comprehensive domestic reform that reallocates the budget more effectively combined with greater transparency and accountability.
  2. Policies to foster economic prosperity and technological progress: The participants opined that digitalisation of economy will foster technological progress and narrow the gap in social inequalities. Therefore, exploring tech advancements in all sectors of economy, including tourism and agriculture, will facilitate the development of a new vision for economic prosperity.  As a mechanism of further economic growth, the participants considered improving economic competitiveness of the country through infrastructure development, land reform and energy-transition reform.
  3. Disaster response and climate change mitigation: The participants agreed that the country currently needs to develop a sustainable economic model which should reflect the climate change impact on all sectors. A better disaster response strategy and adaptation of infrastructure to severe weather conditions will minimise economic losses and risks for different sectors, including agriculture, health, tourism. Therefore, Thailand should focus on developing a green economy and industry at the same time it needs to focus on diversifying energy sources.
  4. Foreign policy and regional cooperation: The participants emphasized that Thailand needs to have a proactive foreign policy to build on and that builds on stable domestic political dynamics. Some of them expressed an opinion that Thailand should take a lead on key topics and initiatives in ASEAN and leverage its membership for economic cooperation and benefits. The smart foreign policy concept suggested by the participants should also start dialogues with MNCs and private sector players. The participants also agreed that while collaborating, geopolitical consequences and risks of economic grants must be thoroughly assessed for a balanced policy.
  5. Educational reform: The participants underlined the need for educational reform that will undergird all other sectoral reforms in the long-term. This is possible through initiating changes in education sector with a priority on a focus on quality of staff and teachers and affordable education that bridges the inequalities gap.

In addition to this, in the long-term the discussants see Thailand as major middle-income player not only in the region but also globally. The strategy to achieve this includes taking continual stock of new geopolitical dynamics and what lay ahead externally with a view to align policies. The participants strongly felt that Thailand has the potential to play a stabilizing role in the region through promoting connectivity, climate change discussion and serving as a logistical hub

Event summary compiled by Dinkim Sailo, Senior Programme Manager, FES Office for Regional Cooperation in Asia.

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