THAILAND’S INTERNATIONAL AND FOREIGN RELATIONS: HISTORY, ISSUES AND FOREIGN AID
Thailand is a member of the Group of 20-plus, a bloc of nations that are not really developed countries but are not really Third World countries either. Created by India and Brazil in the early 2000s, it also includes China, Indonesia, Thailand, South Africa, Nigeria, Mexico and Argentina These countries have a lot of clout in the world market because they have large consumer populations and are large manufacturing centers and they want push their weight around and make sure their interests are addressed in the global economy.
In 2010, Thailand ranked 124th out of 149 nations in the Global Peace Index. The ranking was due mainly to the political unrest associated with Red Shirt and Yellow Shirt protests and the violence in the Muslim south.
Thailand’s former foreign minister Surakiaert Sathirathai, a Harvard-educated lawyer, was on the short list to United Nations Secretary General after Kofi Annan gave up the post but in the end Ban Ki Moon from South Korea was selected.
In January 2012, Thailand formally recognized Palestine as an independent state. In the mid 2000s, there were about 200 Thais working in Israel and the Palestinian territories. In 2004, three Thais were killed in attacks in the Palestinian territories, including one a woman killed in a mortar attack in Gaza.
According to the foreign policy statement issued by the Thai government Thailand’s foreign policy includes support for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the interest of regional stability and emphasis on a close and long-standing security relationship with the United States. Since the 1990s, Thailand has taken an increasingly active role on the international stage. When East Timor gained independence from Indonesia, Thailand, for the first time in its history, contributed troops to the international peacekeeping effort. As part of its effort to improve international ties, Thailand has sought observer status in such regional organizations as the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). There was widespread international condemnation of the September 19, 2006, military-led coup in Thailand yet Thailand’s relations with its allies have not been seriously affected. [Source: Library of Congress]
Since the mid 1980s about 20,000 military and civilian personnel from Thailand have directly taken part in United Nations in peacekeeping missions or have played supportive roles. Thai peacekeepers had had relatively high profiles in Burundi and Cambodia in the 1990s. Thailand sent peacekeeping troops to East Timor in 2000. It has also sent them to the Aceh Province in Indonesia and Afghanistan. More recently they have been deployed in the Darfur, Sudan. [Source: The Nation]
Also See Separate Articles on Thailand’s Relations with Asia, Southeast Asia and the United States.
Thailand, Treaties and International Organizations
Thailand belongs to the following international organizations: Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, Asia-Pacific Telecommunity, Asian Development Bank, Asian Institute of Technology, Asian-Pacific Postal Training Centre, Asian Reinsurance Corporation, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the ASEAN Regional Forum, Bank for International Settlements, Colombo Plan, Committee for Coordination of Joint Prospecting for Mineral Resources in Asian Offshore Areas, Group of 77, International Atomic Energy Agency, International Chamber of Commerce, International Committee of the Red Cross, International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, International Criminal Court, International Criminal Police Organization, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, International Hydrographic Organization, International Olympic Committee, International Organization for Migration, International Organization for Standardization, International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, Mekong River Commission, Network of Aquaculture Centres in Asia-Pacific, Nonaligned Movement, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (partner), Organization of American States (observer), Organization of the Islamic Conference (observer), Permanent Court of Arbitration, Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center, Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Secretariat, World Confederation of Labor, World Customs Organization, World Federation of Trade Unions, World Tourism Organization, and World Trade Organization. Within the United Nations (UN) system, Thailand is a member of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP); Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO); International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD); International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO); International Development Association (IDA); International Finance Corporation (IFC); International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD); International Labour Organization (ILO); International Maritime Organization (IMO); International Monetary Fund (IMF); International Telecommunication Union (ITU); Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA); in Children’s Fund (UNICEF); in Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD); in Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM); in Development Programme (UNDP); in Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); in Environment Programme (UNEP); in Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO); in Office for Asia of the United Nations Office for Project Services; in Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); in Office on Drugs and Crime; in Population Fund (UNFPA); in Regional Center for East Asia and the Pacific; Universal Postal Union (UPU); World Health Organization (WHO); World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO); and World Meteorological Organization (WMO).
Major International Treaties: Thailand is a signatory to the Biological Weapons Convention; Chemical Weapons Convention; Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous, or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare; Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space, and Under Water; Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons; and Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. Thailand also is a party to the Biodiversity, Climate Change, Climate Change–Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Endangered Species, Hazardous Waste, Marine Life Conservation, Ozone Layer Protection, Tropical Timber 83, Tropical Timber 94, and Wetlands environmental agreements. It has signed but not ratified the United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty.
Kavi Chongkittavorn wrote in The Nation in 2009: “Strange as it may seem, when it comes to accession or ratification of international treaties and protocols, the concerned Thai officials are overly cautious in interpreting Thailand's commitments. They tend to overdo it. Thailand took a long time to sign on to the UN against Torture Treaty in 2007. The efforts to ratify the International Criminal Court of Justice, which Thailand proudly signed in 2000, have fallen flat in the past eight years as some conservative lawyers thought that doing so would subject the Thai royal family to the ICC court of justice. Like a lot else in this country, whenever events and issues are related to the monarchy, the responsible authorities tend to play safe and exaggerate the impacts - real or imagined - without scrutinising the ever changing domestic and international environments. A more level-headed rationalisation is urgently needed. [Source: Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation, January 26, 2009]
Piracy, Illegal Drugs and Thailand
Thailand in a minor producer of opium, heroin, and marijuana; transit point for illicit heroin en route to the international drug market from Burma and Laos; eradication efforts have reduced the area of cannabis cultivation and shifted some production to neighboring countries;opium poppy cultivation has been reduced by eradication efforts; also a drug money-laundering center; minor role in methamphetamine production for regional consumption; major consumer of methamphetamine since the 1990s despite a series of government crackdowns. See Illegal Drugs
In November 2008, a Thai fishing trawler, mistaken as a Somali pirate “mother vessel,” was sunk by the Indian Navy in the Gulf of Aden. One Thai fisherman was foud dead. Fourteen others were missing and presumed dead. A Cambodian sailor was rescued by a passing ship after spending four days in the sea. The Indian Navy defended its action, saying it fired in self defense as the fishing boat had been hijacked by armed pirates. An Indian navy spokesman said; “Only after we were fired upon did we fire. We fired in self defense. There were gun-toting guys with RPGs on on.
In 2005, Thailand announced it would contribute patrol boats to anti-piracy efforts in the Malacca Starits, the world’s busiest waterway, between Malaysia and Indonesia. See Piracy Under Asian Topics, Southeast Asia, factsanddetails.com
History of Thailand’s Foreign Relations
Diplomacy has served Thailand well, enabling the kingdom to manage its foreign affairs flexibly and relatively unencumbered by intrusions of major foreign powers. Remarkably adaptive to shifts in international currents, Thailand has almost always aligned itself with the dominant power in the region in its effort to ensure security, increase trade, and preserve national independence. In the 1980s, its primary concern was to normalize relations with Cambodia and Laos--relations that were complicated by the Vietnamese military presence in these countries. [Source: Library of Congress *]
Since World War II, no single factor has shaped the style and substance of Thai foreign relations more than the establishment of a communist-run government in China in 1949. The communist triumph aroused a Thai fear of southward Chinese expansion, in which the economically powerful and ethnocentrist Chinese minority in Bangkok might serve as a potential fifth column. Chinese intervention in Korea in 1950 and growing evidence of clandestine communist Chinese roles in local insurgencies in Southeast Asia reinforced Thai resolve to act in concert with other anticommunist nations. The formal installation of a communist administration in Hanoi after the decisive defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954 set the stage for Thailand's signing of the Manila Pact, a collective security agreement, in September 1954. The resulting Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), as the regional body was formally called, had as its members Australia, Britain, France, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, and the United States. SEATO headquarters was in Bangkok. *
Thailand’s Foreign Relations in the Vietnam War Era
On March 6, 1962, in an attempt to allay Thai apprehensions, the United States and Thailand reached a new understanding under what came to be known as the Rusk-Thanat agreement (named after then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk and then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Thanat Khoman). Under the agreement, the United States pledged that, in the event of aggression it would help Thailand unilaterally without prior agreement of all other parties to the Manila Pact. [Library of Congress *]
During the 1960s, Thailand maintained close economic and security ties with the United States, while at the same time striving to foster regional cooperation with its noncommunist neighbors. Its assumption was that regional solidarity and national security were mutually reinforcing and would provide an effective deterrence to communism. In 1961 Thailand joined Malaya (since 1963, Malaysia) and the Philippines in launching the Association of Southeast Asia as a nonmilitary, nonpolitical vehicle for consultation and mutual assistance in economic, cultural, scientific, and administrative matters. *
In 1967 the Association of Southeast Asia was replaced by a broader regional group, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), comprising Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. The members agreed to cooperate in food production, industry and commerce, civil aviation, shipping, tourism, communications, meteorology, science and technology, and Southeast Asian studies. Consultation and cooperation were to take place through an annual ministerial conference held in each of the five ASEAN countries in alphabetical rotation. As a result of the formation of the regional organization, consultation between Thailand and the other ASEAN countries on external problems increased greatly in the 1970s. *
The Thai response to the external uncertainties of the 1970s was a graphic demonstration of the flexibility of its foreign policy. The external catalyst was an apparent shift in American strategic thinking with regard to China and the Vietnam conflict. The shift was sensed in Bangkok in the late 1960s--in March 1968, when President Lyndon B. Johnson expressed his intention to seek a negotiated peace in Vietnam and again in July 1969, when President Richard M. Nixon told Thai leaders in Bangkok of his intention to lower the future American military profile in Asia without undertaking any new security obligations. At that time, Nixon reaffirmed the United States resolve to "honor its present commitments in Southeast Asia" and to continue its support of Thai efforts in the areas of security and economic development. Not surprisingly, in 1968, before the "Nixon Doctrine" was proclaimed in 1969, Thailand hinted at its desire to open channels of communication with China, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). These channels were considered necessary by the Thai in order to solve difficulties and achieve peaceful coexistence. In late 1970, a government committee was set up to explore the possibility of normalizing relations with China. *
After 1971, as the United States and China moved toward reconciliation and detente, Thai soul-searching began in earnest. In 1972 Thailand sent sports teams to China, and in 1973 Thailand made overtures to Hanoi for a dialogue shortly after the United States and North Vietnam signed a cease-fire agreement. In 1974 a Thai delegation conferred with Chinese premier Zhou Enlai in Beijing on measures to improve bilateral relations. At that time Zhou was reported to have assured the Thai delegation that China would stop aiding communist insurgents in Thailand, while underlining his concern over increasing Soviet influence in Southeast Asia. In December 1974, the Thai government lifted a fifteen-year ban on trade with China. In March 1975, a month before Saigon fell, Thailand announced its decision to recognize and normalize diplomatic relations with China. *
Thailand’s Foreign Relations in the Post- Vietnam War Era
In the wake of communist takeovers in Phnom Penh and Saigon in April 1975, Thailand moved expeditiously to realign its foreign policy. Thailand's security ties with the United States-- the pillar of Bangkok's foreign relations for nearly three decades--were downplayed as part of accentuating a policy of friendship with all nations. In July 1975, the Thai revoked a military accord with the United States under which American troops had been allowed on Thai soil. Thailand also agreed with the Philippines in principle that SEATO, having outlived its usefulness, should be phased out as early as possible. The crowning moment of the policy of readjustment came in July 1975, when Thailand and China signed a formal agreement on establishing diplomatic relations. Noteworthy was the absence of a Chinese demand for the prior removal of American troops from Thailand, in striking contrast to Hanoi's insistence that Thailand should first renounce its policy of "collusion" with the United States before any reconciliation could take place. [Library of Congress *]
The normalization of relations with its Indochinese neighbors became pressing as refugees from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam streamed across the Thai frontier, straining Thai resources and raising tensions in the border regions. Relations with Laos, bound to Thailand by a shared history, religion, ethnicity, culture, and language, were tense. Much of the problem centered on Laotian Meo tribespeople who had taken refuge in Thailand after the communist-led Pathet Lao forces gained control of Vientiane in May 1975. For years the Meo and some Thai irregular troops had waged clandestine operations against the Pathet Lao forces, reportedly with the knowledge and cooperation of the government of Thailand. After intermittent clashes on the Mekong River, Thailand in November 1975 closed the frontier with Laos, causing hardship in Vientiane; this action prevented oil, food, and other essential goods from reaching Laos through Thai territory, the historical transit route to the landlocked country. Tension eased somewhat after January 1976, when the border was reopened following Thai recognition of the new Laotian regime. In August 1976, the two countries signed an agreement on the transport of Laotian goods through Thailand in exchange for Thai air routes over Laos to Vietnam and Hong Kong. Nonetheless, recurring border incidents led to a temporary Thai economic blockade of Laos in late 1977. By the end of the year, Laotian refugees accounted for 73,000 of about 95,000 Indochinese refugees encamped in Thailand. *
Thailand’s Foreign Relations in the 1980s
In the 1980s, the Cambodian-Vietnamese question was a principal concern of Thai foreign policy makers, who found common cause with countries that also opposed the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. Security once again became an important consideration in the determination of Bangkok's foreign policy. [Library of Congress*]
In 1979 the ASEAN members were apparently divided over the Cambodian-Vietnamese situation. Indonesia and Malaysia were reportedly more conciliatory toward Hanoi than Thailand and Singapore, viewing China rather than Vietnam as the principal threat to regional stability. Indonesia and Malaysia wanted a strong and stable Vietnam as a potential ally, or at least as a buffer, against Chinese expansionism. They were inclined to tolerate to a degree the Vietnamese presence in Cambodia and to recognize the Heng Samrin regime, provided that some Vietnamese troops were withdrawn from Cambodia and the political base of the regime was reconstituted more broadly. *
The ASEAN differences were turned aside in June 1980, when Vietnamese troops crossed the border into Thailand. The incursion, which coincided with an annual ASEAN ministerial conference in Kuala Lumpur, was contrary to earlier Vietnamese assurances that they would not encroach on Thai territory. The ASEAN foreign ministers strongly condemned the incursion as "an act of aggression" and reaffirmed their undivided support for the in resolution of November 1979. They also reaffirmed their recognition of the deposed government of Democratic Kampuchea-- their rationale being that to recognize the Heng Samrin regime would be tantamount to rewarding Vietnamese aggression in Cambodia. At the first UN-sponsored international conference on Cambodia held in New York in July 1981, Thailand and its ASEAN allies played a key role in seeking a political settlement of the Cambodian question. The conference was attended by delegates from seventy-nine countries and observers from fifteen others, but it was boycotted by Vietnam, Laos, the Soviet Union and its allies, and some nonaligned nations. The conference adopted a resolution that, among other things, called for a cease-fire by all armed Cambodian factions, the withdrawal of all foreign troops under the supervision of a in observer group, the restoration of Cambodian independence, the establishment of a nonaligned and neutral Cambodia, and the establishment of an and hoc committee comprising Japan, Malaysia, Nigeria, Senegal, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Thailand to advise the in secretary general on ways to implement the resolution. *
In 1987 Thailand continued to express its desire for mutually beneficial relations with the Soviet Union and to affirm its neutrality in the Sino-Soviet rivalry. Relations with Moscow, however, were merely correct, if not cool, as a result of Thai apprehension over Soviet intentions toward Southeast Asia in general and Vietnam in particular. Thai concern was prompted by Moscow's military aid to Vietnam and its continued support of Hanoi's involvement in Cambodia. During his visit to Moscow in May 1987, Minister of Foreign Affairs Siddhi Savetsila of Thailand told his Soviet counterpart that Cambodia was "the test case" of Soviet intentions toward Asia and the Pacific region. He urged the Soviet Union to use its "immense influence and prestige" to bring about a quick and durable settlement of the Cambodian question. Such settlement, according to Siddhi, entailed an early withdrawal of some 140,000 Vietnamese troops from Cambodia, Cambodian exercise of the right of self- determination, and the formation of a neutral and nonaligned Cambodia posing no threat to its neighbors. At the end of the May visit, a protocol was signed establishing a Thai-Soviet trade commission. *
Thailand’s foreign policy with Russia has been based primarily on the procurement of weapons by Thailand through barter, primarily for rice and other foodstuffs.
Foreign Policy Under Thaksin
After Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed, and Singaporean President Goh Chok Tong Goh left office, Thailand’s Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra promoted himself as the leader and senior statesman of Southeast Asia. He hosted U.S. President George Bush, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a an APEC (Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation) forum meeting in Bangkok in October 2003. Before the meeting 3,000 stray dogs were rounded up and shipped to the countryside, 10,000 homeless people were sent to army camps and 600 Cambodian beggars were airlifted in C-130 transports back to Cambodia. Around 500 human right activists were barred from entering the country. .
Kavi Chongkittavorn wrote in The Nation: When Thaksin “came to power in early 2001, the country's economy and diplomacy were quickly transformed and based almost entirely on his idiosyncratic leadership. He envisaged Thailand as a key regional player and did all the public relations stunts himself. The overly ambitious Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD) was launched with fanfare shortly after. This new pan-Asia talk-shop covers more than half the world's population from the east of Suez to the Kamchatka Peninsula. Thaksin viewed himself as a new Asian leader not the ASEAN one, who could unite Asia and its strength. Apparently, he overlooked ASEAN at his own peril. But within ASEAN he still managed to forge close ties with the leaders of Singapore and Cambodia. As Thailand's international image inflated out of proportion, Thaksin prematurely declared in 2003 a Thai candidate to compete for the UN top post to succeed Kofi Annan. He saw the move as a way to shore up the country's international profile and his leadership. The failed attempt cost Thai tax-payers tonnes of money, coupled with unfulfilled diplomatic commitments pledged around the world. [Source: Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation, September 14, 2009]
A major theme of Thaksin’s foreign policy was that Thais should look to themselves first for help and meet their own needs rather than pander to the interest of foreigners. Thaksin wooed China. He was called a “friend” by the United States but also criticized by the U.S. for human rights violations and his handling of unrest in the Muslim south. Thailand and the Muslim World
More than half of 560 million people in ASEAN—to which Thailand belongs— are Muslim. Muslims make up the overwhelming majority of the population in Malaysia and Indonesia. The also make up around one percent of the population in Cambodia (where most are ethnic Chams) and 3.9 percent of the population in Myanmar.
According to the Thai government: “Thailand has various kinds of relations with Muslim nations in all parts of the world – Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, Central Asia, Africa, and even those in southern Europe. There have also been continuous exchanges at many levels. As an observer state of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) since 1998, Thailand has successfully employed this framework to develop political and economic relations and cooperation with Muslim nations. For example, it has encouraged cooperation in energy with Oman, and is working with other Muslim countries on joint investment to produce halal food in Thailand. [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department]
Currently, Thailand maintains 18 embassies and five career consulate-generals in Muslim countries. Meanwhile, 15 Muslim countries now have embassies or consulates in Thailand. A significant number of Muslim Thais, mostly from southern Thailand, work in the Middle East as laborers and servants the same way some Indonesians, Bangladeshis and Muslim Indians.
As an important source of energy, the Middle East is undoubtedly an important region for Thailand in terms of energy security. For many years, Thais have explored and produced petroleum in several Middle Eastern countries. Such activities began in 2002 between Thailand and Oman, when Thailand’s PTT Exploration and Production Public Company Limited (PTTEP) obtained a license from the Omani government for exploration and production. PTTEP subsequently obtained licenses and embarked on cooperation with many other countries in the Middle East.
In terms of economic cooperation, Thailand also has extensive relations with Muslim nations. Such cooperation is continually expanding, as can be seen from the 57-percent increase in trade between Thailand and Middle Eastern nations in 2008, at a total value of over $37.5 billion. Investment cooperation between Thailand and the Muslim world still has room to grow, in terms of both quantity and scope. For this reason, Thailand is finding ways to further expand trade and investment and increase business connections with Muslim countries in such fields as construction, as well as in using sovereign wealth funds as a mechanism to support joint investments.
Another potential area is health care. Thailand’s healthcare service, in particular, has brought many patients from Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries to Thailand each year for medical check-ups and treatments. Top medical facilities such as Bumrungrad, Phyathai, and Bangkok hospitals are now household names in GCC states.
Foreign Aid and Development
A number aid groups, NGOs and volunteer organizations are active in the north of Thailand doing things like building and fixing up hoises, constructing schools, digging wells, planting trees, teaching bee keeping and setting up basic flush toilets and other sanitation facilities.
Within Southeast Asia, Thailand is regarded as a leader and a donor nation to poorer neighbor such as Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos—a role Thailand’s neighbors are not necessarily comfortable with. In any case, Thailand relishes its role of being a donor nation rather than a recipient one. It has done things like provide soft loans to its Southeast Asian neighbors so these countries can improve their communication systems and provide generic antiviral drugs that treat HIV-AIDS.
On July 31, 2003, Thailand repaid its outstanding obligations under a standby arrangement from the International Monetary Fund designed to help it recover from the 1997–98 Asian financial crisis. Payment was made one year ahead of schedule, reflecting the achievement of macroeconomic and balance-of-payments stability.
In 2005 the World Bank was funding eight development projects in Thailand. These projects encompassed the areas of social investment (US$300 million), education (US$225 million), land titling (US$118 million), technical assistance (US$30 million), and energy (US$245 million). Despite the devastating tsunami of December 26, 2004, the Thai government announced it did not need any international financial assistance in response.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014