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.
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.
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.
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:
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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