Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has highlighted how Thailand’s desire to balance its relations with the major powers, coupled with the deleterious effects of nearly two decades of political turmoil, has enervated the country’s foreign policy.
Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has sparked condemnation from many countries around the world. But Thailand, a key Southeast Asian country, has been non-committal.
Although Thailand joined with 140 other countries (including seven of its ASEAN partners) in voting for a non-binding UN General Assembly resolution ‘deploring’ Russia’s attack, its foreign ministry has refused to condemn Russia by name.
Citing the Kingdom’s long-standing friendship with Russia, the need to focus on evacuating its citizens from Ukraine, and supporting ASEAN’s call for dialogue to resolve the crisis, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said that Thailand would remain neutral in the conflict. Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai’s comment that there was no need for Thailand to ‘rush into playing a role’ bordered on the callous.
What explains the Thai government’s disinterested response to the outbreak of the biggest inter-state conflict in Europe since the end of the Second World War and what appears to be a major turning point in global affairs?
Thailand’s approach to foreign relations over the past two decades, as well as the impact of domestic politics, may provide the answer.
During the Cold War, Thailand took a very active role in global politics. Staunchly pro-American and anti-communist until the mid-1970s, Thailand contributed troops to the United States-led wars in Korea and Vietnam. It hosted the headquarters of Asia’s ill-starred version of NATO, the South-East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), and was one of the driving forces behind the creation of ASEAN in 1967. It was the second ASEAN member to establish diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China in 1975, and when Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978 it led ASEAN’s opposition to the Soviet-backed occupation.
In the post-Cold War era, however, and especially since the turn of the twenty-first century, Thailand’s role in international affairs has become much less proactive.
In the country’s relations with the major powers, successive Thai governments have tried to pursue a balanced approach, especially in the country’s relations with the US and China. From time to time, Thailand has felt the need to lean towards either Washington or Beijing, before bringing its relations with both countries back into equilibrium. Scholars of Thai foreign policy refer to this as the country’s ability to ‘bend with the wind’.
Thailand’s bamboo diplomacy provides the framework to explain Bangkok’s support for America’s ‘Global War on Terror’ after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and its current tilt towards Beijing. After the military coups of 2006 and 2014, Washington had temporarily consigned Thailand to the diplomatic doghouse.
In the main, however, Thailand tries not to take sides in the geopolitical squabbles among the great powers. Hence the Thai government’s assertion of neutrality in the Russia-Ukraine War.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said that Thailand would remain neutral in the conflict. Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai’s comment that there was no need for Thailand to ‘rush into playing a role’ bordered on the callous.
But Thailand’s rather passive approach to international affairs is also a product of its domestic politics, which have been roiled by a series of political crises, some violent, in the wake of the country’s two military coups. These crises have taken up much of the establishment’s policy bandwidth, leaving little space for foreign affairs. Instead of pursuing initiatives to promote the country’s national interests abroad, Thailand’s skillful diplomats have instead often found themselves defending the country’s human rights record and lack of democratic credentials. As Ben Zawacki has argued, over the past decade we have witnessed ‘Thailand’s vision turn inward and shorten beyond its shores; retrenchment over continued outreach and initiative.’
This foreign policy introversion has conditioned Thailand’s response to events both near and far. Ukraine might be thousands of miles away, but Myanmar is Thailand’s next door neighbour. Yet despite the potential for instability caused by the February 2021 coup to spill over into Thailand, the government has been content to go with the ASEAN flow, abdicating the leadership role to Indonesia instead.
In addition to highlighting Thailand’s diplomatic torpor, the conflict in Europe has brought further bad news for the country’s pandemic-battered economy.
As with all Southeast Asian countries, Thailand is feeling the macroeconomic pinch of the conflict, including rising food and energy prices. Trade between Thailand and Russia is paltry, registering at a mere US$2.5 billion in 2019. Before the pandemic, however, travellers from Russia were an important source of income for the Kingdom’s goose-that-lays-the-golden-egg tourism industry. In 2019, 1.4 million Russians visited Thailand. With Chinese tourists stuck at home due to the government’s zero-Covid policy, earlier this year Thailand looked to Russia to help the Thai travel industry get back on its feet. In January, 23,000 Russians visited Thailand — a staggering one-fifth of tourist arrivals. But as sanctions have forced airlines to suspend flights to and from Russia, and credit card companies will no longer accept payments from Russia, this important source of tourism has dried up, as well as leaving thousands of Russians stranded in the Kingdom’s beach resorts.
In addition to the economic fallout from the conflict, a certain VIP visitor from Russia is giving the Thai government a tension headache. In November, Thailand is set to host the first in-person Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit since 2018. President Vladimir Putin seldom misses an APEC Summit. But following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the leaders of many APEC countries may threaten to boycott the summit if Putin attends. Due to its professed neutrality, Thailand will be loth not to invite Putin. But if the other leaders do not come, the event will be a major embarrassment for Thailand.
Fortunately for Prime Minister Prayut, Putin is unlikely to be doing much travelling this year, especially if he is indicted for war crimes allegedly committed by his armed forces in Ukraine. If Putin chooses to turn down his APEC invitation, that would suit Thailand’s bamboo diplomacy just fine.
Ian Storey is Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.