Thailand is known to Russians as an extremely popular holiday destination, which only last year was visited by 1.6 million people. During my studies in the Thai group at the Institute of Asian and African Countries, a trip to Thailand seemed a distant dream. The reason was simple – the country’s military rule. As, of course, is the case now. But today, the power of the military, who scored a coup-d’état about a year ago to liquidate parliamentary democracy, will not become a barrier to the development of relations between Russia and Thailand. Russia, according to the statement by Dmitry Medvedev, perceives the military coup as an exclusively internal matter of Thailand.
Despite such long-lasting diplomatic contacts between the two countries, covering 118 years, Thailand has never been among the important trade partners of Russia and its strategic allies. Rather, Thai economy was dominated by Japanese investors, and strong foreign policy positions were occupied by the US, which since the days of the Vietnam War created its own outpost in Thailand. Therefore, Russia’s interest in this country is mainly limited to cultural exchange, and, in recent years, to tourism development.
Russia’s turn to Thailand, and Thailand’s turn to Russia, is currently favored by the geopolitical situation, which changed last year. Both countries have been targets of fierce criticism from Europe and the United States. Russia – because of the annexation of Crimea and the policies towards Ukraine, and Thailand – due to the establishment of a military dictatorship in the country, which led to some temporary restriction of democratic freedoms. One way or another, both countries were politically isolated in the international arena and forced to change their orientation in foreign policy. And this contributes to their mutual rapprochement and expansion of mutually beneficial contacts.
The visit by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to Thailand in early April was the first visit to the country by Russia’s leadership over the past 25 years, which seeks not only to identify but also to expand Russia’s presence in the region, in the development of which Thailand plays a significant role as the second largest economy in Southeast Asia. And for the government of Thailand, the visit meant recognition of legitimacy of the established power in the country by the first non-Western partner, and the provision of international support that certainly works to strengthen and improve its image abroad.
More recently, the leadership of Thailand has experienced another wave of criticism from the United Nations, human rights organizations, the United States, and Europe, who evaluated the military’s actions on the replacement of martial law established in the country on the eve of the coup of May 22 by article 44 of the interim constitution as an attempt to strengthen absolute power, and characterized them as “even more draconian”.
The “Anti-Thailand” campaign has invoked a negative reaction from the new political establishment in this country, which sees it as the desire of the West to intervene in the internal affairs of Thailand. The cooling of political relations with the West strengthens the interest of Thailand in searching for new allies and business partners.
Therefore, when General Prayuht Chan-Ocha welcomed his Russian high-ranking guest with the words “a friend in need is a friend indeed”, he was certainly sincere. And not just because the visit of Dmitry Medvedev corresponded to his political interests, but also because the head of Thailand was experiencing a respectful disposition toward Russia and its head, Vladimir Putin, as a strong independent political leader, who selected for the country the so-called “special path to development”, which general Prayuth himself seeks to implement in Thailand. For him, this path is seen as the rejection of “Western democracy” and the creation of a strong national government.
The coincidence of political interests of Russia and Thailand in the changed international environment creates favorable conditions for the expansion of their economic and military cooperation. For Russia it is a real chance to gain access to a still underdeveloped, yet promising market. For Thailand, faced with decelerating growth rates, it is an opportunity to attract Russian investments and increase its exports.
In 2014, trade between the countries was relatively modest and amounted to 4.7 billion dollars, with the advantage for the Russian side, with its exports of 3.5 billion dollars and imports of 1.2 billion dollars. Thailand exports to Russia rice, canned fruit, cars, radios, televisions, computers, and computer components, and in return buys iron ore, steel, and oil.
During the visit, 10 agreements were signed, with five of them signed between private companies on both sides. The other five are memoranda of understanding to enhance cooperation in energy, investment, tourism, culture, and the fight against drug trafficking.
Russia also signed an agreement to increase the volume of rubber purchased from Thailand in four times in 2016 versus 2015, with Thailand being very interested in this because of the decline in demand for these products in the global market (Thailand is the world’s leading exporter of it), and in turn expressed its willingness to respond to the wishes of the Thai side to supply military aircraft and other defensive weapons. Today, given the fact that the traditional military ally of Thailand, the United States, has stopped providing military aid and ceased military cooperation for political reasons, Russia has opened up promising opportunities to enter a new weapons market.
As for Thailand, it did not fail to take advantage of Russia’s embargo on agricultural exports from Western countries to offer its goods, including seafood. The exports of the latter are a significant part of Thailand’s income – 7 billion dollars. But last year there were difficulties with the sale of these products in developed markets. Problems arose due to the fact that in July 2014 the US State Department in its annual report on global human trafficking evaluated the actions of the Thai government in the fight against this phenomenon as extremely inefficient and gave them the lowest ranking. Thailand was in last place in the list of 188 countries. The reason for such low assessment was due to the use of slave labor in the fishing industry of the country. The world’s leading retailers Costco, Walmart, Carrefour, and Tesco are willing, in order to maintain their image among their customers, to restrict or even ban the import of shrimp, which could hit the country’s economy hard.
The agreements signed by Russia and Thailand create a real basis for increasing trade between the countries, which should grow to 10 billion dollars next year, and for expanding cooperation in various fields on the basis, as the leader of Thailand noted, of “mutual interest and equality”.
Undoubtedly, Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to Thailand turns a new page in Russian-Thai relations. But one should not hope to deepen cooperation between the two countries. It has its limits, defined primarily by the pragmatic interests of the Thai side, which has traditionally played on the contradictions between the major powers. At the time, this allowed Thailand to maintain its national independence and avoid colonial enslavement. Today, while continuing to maintain strong economic ties with its traditional partners in the West, which were not damaged by the political controversy, the leadership of Thailand adopted a policy of rapprochement with China, trade with which in 2013 amounted to 65.6 billion dollars, which is 14 times the volume of trade with Russia. And, it is hardly a coincidence that the visit of D. Medvedev to Thailand coincided with the arrival in China for the third time last year of the Minister of Defense of Thailand to expand military contacts.
However, Russia should not miss the chance to develop cooperation with Thailand, considering the willingness of its leadership.
Natalia Rogozhina, Ph.D. in political sciences, a leading research partner at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.