Strong links: The nation’s international relations are based on concentric circles

As a founding member of ASEAN, a long-time ally of the US and the West – and a member of the UN, World Bank, IMF and a host of other multilateral organisations – Thailand has long been connected to the wider world. Indeed, recently Bangkok celebrated 500 years of diplomatic relations with one Western nation – Portugal. Throughout the years too, Thailand has pursued a foreign policy based on concentric circles – prioritising the innermost circle of close neighbours, followed by relations with regional states and alliances, then with more global engagements and powers.

This was reaffirmed in the first major foreign policy statement of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on taking office in 2011. She declared that the promotion and development of relations with neighbouring countries was a priority, with ASEAN – and the move towards economic community by 2015 – a key focus. After that, relations with international partners and organisations, such as the UN, would come more into play.

Ties With Neighbours

Having land borders with four countries – Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia – while also being central to a geo-strategic region that includes Vietnam, Indonesia, China and India, Thailand’s emphasis on neighbourly relations is entirely understandable. Indeed, when the current government took office, relations with Cambodia had been troubled, thanks to a dispute over boundaries around the Preah Vihear temple site. Myanmar was also only just beginning reforms. Conflicts there had left many refugees in camps along the border, with serious problems in human trafficking and illegal migration.

In three provinces on the border with Malaysia, meanwhile, a low level insurgency has been under way for many years, as a number of separatist and largely ethnic Malay Islamist groups battle security forces.

All of these disputes have since seen some hopeful developments. In November 2013 the International Court of Justice in The Hague made a ruling on the temple lands that was welcomed by both Bangkok and Phnom Penh. While much remains to be done too within Myanmar to resolve conflicts there, after a meeting with Prime Minister Yingluck in September 2013, Myanmar’s supreme military commander, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, declared relations to be at their most cordial in history.

The insurgency in the south continues despite Malaysian mediation in 2013 that lead in meetings between Thai authorities and the National Revolutionary Front, the main separatist group. There was some hope in early 2014 that 2015 might see a ceasefire.

ASEAN Broker

Thailand has also been at the forefront of the development of ASEAN, with recent years seeing a major investment in preparing the country, its institutions and businesses for ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2015. Thailand was thus able to report to other ASEAN leaders in 2013 that it had met some 86% of the targeted AEC measures – higher than the ASEAN average of 80%. Thailand is the only mainland ASEAN state that is among the first round of member states entering the AEC. Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar have an extended deadline, on account of the greater extent of the reforms they will need to undertake. One of the main challenges ASEAN faces in the year ahead concerns the next concentric circle – relations with China. Disputes over the South China Sea, both between ASEAN members and among them and China, look likely to continue. Thailand, without a territorial claim of its own in the sea, is in a position to be an honest broker in the discussion.

Thailand also began a three-year stint as ASEAN’s China relations coordinator in July 2012 and has been instrumental since in efforts to gain all-party agreement on a code of conduct for the sea.

The political turmoil being faced at home, however, will likely lead to a hiatus in Bangkok’s foreign policy efforts in the early part of 2014 at least. With many important international issues to face though, many of Thailand’s neighbours are also hoping that current troubles prove short-lived. Bangkok’s experience and international standing may indeed be widely missed.

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