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From Looks to Action: Thailand-India Strategic Convergence and Defence Cooperation

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  • March 28, 2014
    Fellows' Seminar

    Chairperson: Prof Charan D Wadhva
    External Discussants: Prof S D Muni and Prof Ganganath Jha
    Internal Discussants: Cdr S S Parmar and Dr Udai Bhanu Singh

    Prof. Wadhwa initiated the event by giving a briefing on India-Thailand bilateral relations which is grounded on historical inheritances. Thailand, being one of the closest Southeast Asian neighbours of India, bears many semblances with India in terms of culture, traditions, geography and economy.

    Followed by this brief introduction, Ms. Chingchit began her presentation. During the Cold War Thailand and other non-communist countries in Southeast Asia considered India as being a close ally of Soviet Union’s and thus maintained a limited engagement. The shift in Thailand’s foreign policy orientation in 1988 allowed India to become Thailand’s natural partner by virtue of its geographic location, economic potential and geopolitical pre-eminence in South Asia. Finally, in January 2012, Thailand and India signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Defence Cooperation after 67 years of diplomatic relations and two decades of collaboration to expand the defence and military ties between the two countries. Prior to 2012, Indo-Thai defence relation had been largely unaddressed and underdeveloped. Until now, despite having military engagements in the areas of military exercise, joint patrol and defence dialogue under bilateral and multilateral frameworks, the existing defence cooperation between India and Thailand has never been noteworthy. This does not correspond with the increasing significance of India-Thailand partnership and the changing power and security dynamics in Asia. As a part of defence diplomacy, both sides need to strengthen their military ties to complement their growing engagement in other spheres. However, it remains to be seen as to what extent and in which domain Thailand and India can manage to push their defence relation forward.

    Prof S D Muni mentioned that since no major work has been done on Indo-Thai defence cooperation in India, Ms. Chingchit’s paper has certain relevance. The data used are mostly primary and hence, the paper is useful. However, he recommended that Thai media reports could also be used to get the Thai perspectives on the subject. Prof. Muni argued that the paper lacks strategic background on Indo-Thai relation- how it has been evolving and unfolding. Post Cold War changes could have been brought in the beginning of the paper. He further argued that Thailand has been successfully balancing China and US in the region, as mentioned by Ms. Chingchit in her paper; however, most of the Southeast Asian countries have been following the same trend in the region in order to avoid any major conflict. How India is perceived in Thailand was not mentioned in the paper, Prof. Muni pointed out. Moreover, the minor defence cooperation between India and Thailand that was in existence before 2012 could have been incorporated in the paper, opined Prof. Muni. Factors like growing importance of Bay of Bengal, common concerns like terrorism, money laundering etc. need to be focused too.

    Followed by the opinion by Prof. Muni, Prof. Jha said that Thailand’s geographic location is important and the capability of the Thais in strategic thinking is at par in excellence in comparison to other Southeast Asian countries. He mentioned that the training exercises of Indian National Army were conducted in Phuket. However, during the Cold War, some disturbances appeared in the Indo-Thai relations. After this brief phase of bewilderment, both India and Thailand came closer to each other followed by the Look East Policy of India and formation of BIMSTEC signalled a positive step in India’s relations with Thailand. Between 1998 and 2002, a lot of other attempts were taken to enhance Indo-Thai relations. In the recent time, the Daewoo project evokes fascination. At the end of his discussion, Prof. Jha said that for India, Thailand is a major stakeholder in its efforts of developing good relations with the Asia Pacific countries.

    Cdr Parmar mentioned that not much material is available on Indo-Thai defence cooperation in the newspapers and this explains the limitations of the relationship itself. He stressed on the low activities and low initiatives in the relationship between India and Thailand. He focused on the limitations in the bilateral defence cooperation between India and Thailand which should be emphasized in the paper also. How Thailand can use the multilateral-regional platforms like IORA in enhancing its relations with India, what are Thailand’s expectations from India and how US and China factors influence the bilateral equations between India and Thailand were some of the major thrust areas identified by Cdr. Parmar.

    Dr. Singh said that most of facts of defence relationship between India and Thailand have been covered in the paper. However, greater attention to the regional security architecture needs to be covered in order to explain the challenges and constraints. Lack of connectivity, infrastructural gaps exist in the North-eastern region of India, opening of Myanmar and other related factors need to be explained in the paper. In addition, Dr. Singh mentioned that the paper has no reference on the regional economic architecture which surely has a deeper impact on the regional security architecture. How the domestic turmoil inside Thailand is likely to influence the defence and security equations of Thailand was also missing in the paper.

    During the general discussion, Prof. Gautam Sen suggested that the aspect of India-Myanmar-Thailand triangle should be discussed in the paper. Another participant, Mr. Peter Van Der Hoest asked about the factors which are holding India and Thailand back from augmenting their defence cooperation. Ms. Bhattacharyya, a Post Doctoral Fellow from JNU said that Thailand does not have any external threat perception and hence, she asked, why should India and Thailand opt for defence cooperation. As the discussion was continued, Cdr Parmar asked about India’s position in Thailand’s Look West Policy and the vice versa. Prof. Wadhwa asked about the economic dynamics of Indo-Thai relations focusing on the comparative advantages of comprehensive economic partnership against free trade agreement.

    As concluding remarks Ms. Chingchit observed that Thailand wants India to play greater role in the region, to maintain peace and stability in Northeast India as well as develop its infrastructure, open more markets for Thailand and improve connectivity between India and Southeast Asia.

    The discussion ended with a positive note on further collaboration and cooperation expected from Thailand in support of India and the vice versa as bilateral relationship is a two way process.

    (Report Prepared by Ms. Sampa Kundu, Research Assistant, IDSA)