India’s foreign policy has undergone a considerable change after the disintegration of Soviet Union. The countries which were on the other side of the Cold War divide have not remained a pariah anymore. One such country is Thailand. It is appropriate to say that India’s Look East Policy and Thailand’s Look West policy haveled the two countries to finally look at each other. The two important tenets of their relationship are the Free Trade Agreement and Strategic Partnership. In order to appreciate the depth of their current relations, it is important to them in a historical perspective.
Brief Glance at India-Thailand Relations
India and Thailand are maritime neighbours. India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands are much closer to Thailand coast than Indian coast. India and Thailand relations go as far as 329 BC when Indian Emperor Ashoka sent his men to spread Buddhism in Thailand. Immediately after Indian independence in 1947, diplomatic ties were forged between the two countries.
They cooperate closely in the ASEAN, East Asia Summit (EAS) and BIMSTEC groupings and as Mekong Ganga Cooperation and Asia Cooperation Dialogue. There have been six Prime Ministerial visits from Thailand to India during 2001-2011 and four from India to Thailand during this time-period, which underline the importance India and Thailand have given to each other off late.
They also share cultural links as Hindu epics such as Ramayana also have a Thai rendition. Tourist exchange between the two countries is also of a high volume with a whopping 1.16 million Indian visits to Thailand in 2012 alone.
Look East meets Look West
Indian foreign policy has undergone a huge transformation after 1991. One of the important corner stone of this transformation has been its engagement with the East. India before the 90s was on the USSR side of the Cold War divide. The South East Asians economies were also not the economic powerhouses which they later on became. An economically liberalising India saw rationale in engaging with a prosperous East and thus came a strategic shift in its foreign policy termed as ‘Look East Policy’ (LEP).
Likewise, the Royal Thai Government in 1997 rolled its ‘Look West Policy’ with dual aim of forging and strengthening bilateral ties and economic ties beyond the region of South East Asia to include South Asia, Middle East and Africa. It was this very ‘Look West’ approach of Thai government and ‘Look East’ approach of the Indian government that has paved the way for India-Thailand relations in this century. Ex-PM Dr Manmohan Singh during his tenure held Thailand as an important gateway to India’s engagement with the East.
Unlike in the past when India’s engagement with the East was based on Nehruvian ideals of Asian brotherhood and shared colonial past, now it is hard-core economics and an astute business sense which is guiding the ‘Look East’ policy. But to consider ‘Look East’ policy as only an economic policy would be inadequate as in the words of Ex-PM Dr Manmohan Singh, LEP is ‘not merely an external economic policy; it is also a strategic shift in India’s vision of the world and India’s place in the evolving global economy.’
LEP can be considered as a successful policy as India is now a member of East Asian Summit and ASEAN Regional Forum. It also has economic engagement with all the EAS countries including Thailand and they also have defence and strategic cooperation in place.
The policies of Look East and Look West are region-specific policies, but both India and Thailand assume greater significance for each other in their respective policies. India considers Thailand as an important factor in its integration with the East and likewise Thailand considers India as a gateway to the remaining South Asia and beyond.
India-Thailand Free Trade Agreement
FTAs are a result of the failure of WTO rounds due to which countries are increasingly enacting Regional Trade Agreements in order to stay integrated with the world economy. Interestingly, the first FTA that India signed in its immediate neighbourhood was with Thailand. The seeds of a Free Trade Agreement between India and Thailand were sown in the year 2001 when then Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra visited India and leaders of both the countries agreed to expand economic ties in the area of trade and investment. That led to India and Thailand setting up a Joint Working Group to study the feasibility of a Free Trade Agreement. The JWG gave a positive report which was followed by a Joint Negotiating Committee to develop framework of the agreement. This framework agreement was signed by ministers of commerce of both countries in 2003. The framework agreement had an Early Harvest Scheme aimed at tariff reduction of 82 items which concluded in 2006 when tariffs reached zero percent on those items.
FTAs are heralded as a great way of strengthening political and strategic relations between the countries. USA for instance forged FTAs with Australia and ASEAN to have their strategic support in the fight against terror after 9/11. If we read India-Thailand FTA in a similar light, then it is politically beneficial for India in terms of offsetting Chinese influence in its east.
Indian had abandoned the strategic thought of Non-Alignment with the end of the Cold War. According to foreign policy experts, its transition from a Non-aligned country to one which takes sides politically has not been a swift but a very gradual change. The concept of Strategic Partnership emanates from this foreign policy space. Strategic Partnership thus does not amount to an alliance which is relationship based on a formal document with binding legal obligations for the signatories. Instead according to the experts, strategic partnerships are India’s way of engaging with other countries in matters of core national interest while at the same time taking its own time to cement the relationship.
India has strategic partnerships with countries as varied as US, China, Japan, France, Russia, Brazil, Afghanistan etc. A comparative study was undertaken by Foundation for National Security Research of these strategic partnerships rating them on the basis of defence cooperation, economic cooperation and political cooperation. These variables are a helpful way of analysing India-Thailand strategic partnership itself.
In terms of economic cooperation, India and Thailand cooperate very closely as conclusion of an FTA between them signifies. According to a Ministry of External Affairs document, investments between the two countries are also huge with Indian FDI to be an estimated $2 billion and Thai investment in India till 2014 to be $172.05 million.
Defence cooperation is an important element of India-Thailand strategic partnership as both share maritime water and face similar geostrategic compulsions. India and Thailand have an extradition treaty in place. They also cooperate in the defence sector through joint patrolling of the waters, military exchanges and exercises.
In terms of political-diplomatic cooperation, India and Thailand can be said to be cooperating at a great level as they share various international fora such as EAS, ASEAN Regional Forum and BIMSTEC. There have been regular high-level visits between the two countries leading experts to term the last two decades as golden age of India-Thailand relations.
Looking at the three variables, it is safe to conclude that India and Thailand have put efforts in their strategic partnership. In the last two decades they have led the roadmap for their relation which means that subsequent decades are a good chance for the two countries to act it in letter and spirit.
Monica Verma holds a Masters degree in International Relations from South Asian University. She is editor of The Forthright, a political blog.