Evolving Role of Thailand in India’s Act East Policy

by Pratham Maheshwari


Photo by Swarnavo Chakrabarti on Unsplash

In order to assist India in its struggle against the catastrophic second wave of COVID-19, Thailand supplied oxygen tankers and medical devices to India.


This instance illustrates the evolving Indo-Thai relationship from economic cooperation to a resilient bilateral relationship.


The foundational traces of this bilateral relationship lie in both the nations’ ancient and cultural roots bounded by Buddhism.


However, this article focuses on the current phase of an episodic evolution of the relationship beginning from the adoption of India's Look East Policy which later became the Act East Policy.


India's Act East Policy is one of India's critical geopolitical strategies intended to develop economic and strategic relations with Asia-Pacific countries.


At the end of the Cold War, India had lost one of its economic and strategic partners, the USSR. It compelled former Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao to reconsider India's policy framework under the changing dimensions.


As a result, he officially launched the Look East Policy in 1992 to address the rising economic challenges and the security challenges to a limited extent.


To deepen the Look East Policy and adopt an action oriented approach, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Act East Policy in 2014.


Through this policy, the economic engagements between both countries have risen exponentially. Trade and investments have increased overall because of the cooperative financial steps taken by the nations.


Although, some anomalies are also visible. For instance, the 2014 imposition of martial law in Thailand caused a trade decline in 2015 and 2016. Declining Indian investments in Thailand since 2014 is another anomaly because of the information gap regarding policy guidelines, promising sectors, potential collaborators, etc., impediments in the recruitment process, and procedural bottlenecks.


Such anomalies display a scope of improvement in bilateral economic relations, which could be utilized by addressing the origins of such inconsistencies.


Nevertheless, Prime Ministerial visits, promulgating trade policies and agreements at domestic and bilateral levels, cooperation at multilateral institutions such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, Mekong-Ganga Cooperation have proved to be scintillating tools in expanding economic cooperation.


Moreover, the scope of economic expansion is driving on a positive note with the increasing maritime co-operation, development of infrastructural connectivity such as India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and Myanmar's Dawei Port, and facilitating negotiations on the current Free Trade Agreement and India-Thailand Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement.


One of the recent steps per the policy was the commencement of transmuting Northeast India as a 'gateway' to Southeast Asia for instituting connectivity, especially with Thailand and Myanmar.


Such steps towards bolstering economic relationship is a validation of the triumph of India's Act East Policy accounting for Thailand's role, as the principal aim behind the policy is being achieved fruitfully. Nonetheless, the 'evolution' refers to the widening of horizons beyond the economic expansion boundaries established by the policy.


The addition of amelioration of domains such as security co-operation, political co-operation, assistance during adversities defines the evolution of the bilateral relationship.


Symmetric concerns and converging interests are primarily responsible for such an evolution. As both the countries recognised plausible significance in their bilateral relations, mutual efforts of seeking co-operation on various domains were visible.


The mutual efforts initially reflected cooperative deliberations and agreements, but bilateral institutional mechanisms such as Joint Commission Meeting and Foreign Office Consultations were also perceptible at a later stage. Symmetric security and economic concerns of both countries are the primary drivers for pursuing maritime cooperation.


The requirement of maritime security cooperation is primarily for mitigating the conventional and non-conventional threats such as terrorist attacks and maritime piracy, narco-terrorism, respectively.


Secondly, it also addresses soft issues such as environmental security, preservation of marine ecology. The necessity of maritime economic cooperation is because of the coastal nature of the geographical locations of both countries, as they share the maritime boundary in the Andaman Sea.


Along with addressing the security of its Exclusive Economic Zones and maintaining surveillance from Malacca Strait to Madagascar to serve its strategic interests, India also emphasizes the development of a free and open ocean that also accommodates Thailand's economic presence.


These factors convince both countries to develop cooperation for both countries’ economic well-being through their foreign exchange frameworks.


The scope of maritime cooperation is vast and includes the cooperative steps coordinated with joint military exercises, joint patrols, and defence dialogues at bilateral and multilateral levels.


The Indo-Thai relationship has also witnessed bilateral military exchanges to address the issues of defence and security. Primarily, these exchanges encompass the involvement of Naval forces.


Indian Navy's Multilateral Naval Exercises, Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, Western Pacific Naval Symposium, exercise Maitree, IndoThailand Joint Working Group, Indo-Thai Coordinated Patrolling are instances displaying the region of fostering bilateral military co-operation between both the countries.


Both countries have been victims of devastating acts of terrorism, with the threats looming in the future. Hence, both nations recognize the necessity of adopting a practical counter-terrorism approach.


Regarding the bilateral efforts, both the countries' leaders have addressed terrorism and separatism in various instances.


Subsequently, they have committed to cooperate and assist each other through diverse mechanisms under the realm of counter-terrorism approach.


However, according to experts, a scope of higher security co-operation still exists to address the issues profoundly.


Thailand possesses a balancing dilemma with the USA and China but from healthy proximity.


Being a strategic and defence ally of the USA and a financial ally of China, Thailand sustains its proximity with China by geographical distance and eluding the financial overdependence on China through exploring other trade partners such as Japan.


This framework allows Thailand to remain cautious with China, a similar notion shared by India, also possessing an alliance with the USA, reflecting the convergence of their concerns.


As the USA seeks to counter Chinese influence, strengthening relations between the former's allying countries shall please it.


From the perspective of the USA, such an alliance would aid in reducing the Chinese influence in the region. Hence, an inclination towards strengthening Indo-US relations could be perceptible along with minor bolstering of bilateral relations of India with USA's allies such as Japan and Australia, which are also wary of Chinese influence over the region.


USA perceives India, along with the co-operation of USA's allies, as an apt counterbalance to Chinese influence where Thailand could also play a marginal role.


Such developments would also remain in the scrutiny of China, and hence, ramifications could be observed in Indo-Chinese relations accordingly.


Mini-lateral initiatives observe the bilateral relationship by their interests. For instance, The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which is also apprehensive about Chinese influence, is willing to pursue relations with Thailand.


The convergence of India's Act East Policy and Thailand's Look West Policy is another geostrategic driver of the bolstering Indo-Thai bilateral relations, which promulgates both countries to ease concerns with each other's belonging regions.


With the attainment of co-operation at various domains other than economic, a decisive development of Thailand's role is observable in the future.


While the extent of cooperation shall run parallel with the convergence of interests, bilateral cooperation remains a significant scope in such domains.









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About the author

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Pratham Maheshwari is currently residing in Ahmedabad, India. His primary academic interests include Asian Geopolitics, Indian Foreign Policy and European Politics.

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