This year marks the completion of seventy years of India-Thailand relations. Due to increasing importance of Southeast Asia for India, Thailand occupies a crucial position in India’s foreign policy. On this background it is pertinent to look at the India-Thailand relations over the past seventy years and also take into account what do these ties hold for our country in the future?
Although India and Thailand established diplomatic ties in 1947, their relations remained at a bare minimum level for most of the part in this period. Not over friendly but also not hostile. Thailand was always identified better with cultural affinity to India than anything else. So the political and strategic angle of the bilateral ties remained in a dormant position. Cultural factor dominated the relations while economic and educational factors were other highlights of the bilateral relations.
During the entire Cold War period India’s policy of Non-Alignment and Thailand’s (and even entire Southeast Asia’s) proximity to United States ensured that no real progress was made in the bilateral relations. It was only in the post Cold War era, which means more than 40 years after establishment of diplomatic relations, that India’s policy towards the Southeast Asian Region changed. The end of Cold War era also resulted in changes in India’s foreign policy. One of the most important changes was the priority given to the Southeast Asian countries.
The launch of Look East Policy in 1992 and subsequently the Act East Policy in 2014 has sought to reduce the impact arising out of neglect of that region. The geographical location of Thailand makes it one of the strategically most important countries for India. Although Thailand does not share land boundary it shares maritime boundary with India (from Andaman and Nicobar Islands). With India’s increasing foray into maritime domain, Thailand would be a valuable partner in the area of maritime co-operation.
With improvement in relations with Southeast Asia the relations with Thailand have also developed in the past 25 years. Trade and economic aspects have progressed. Culture was always the strong bonding point between the two countries. In addition, tourism has become an important aspect of the bilateral relations. Overall the soft diplomacy has shown a positive and encouraging trend in the past few years. Hard diplomacy is an upcoming area which is showing positive indications and offers scope for further growth.
The post-Cold War period has seen gradual development of defence relations between India and Thailand. The co-operation in the defence sector has resulted in joint naval exercises which must be continued. Defence co-operation could further be extended to information sharing with regard to traditional and non-traditional security matters. Being the ‘maritime’ neighbour of India Thailand holds immense potential for India to co-operate in various sectors such as blue economy, security and connectivity.
In addition to bilateral relations, India and Thailand interact and co-operate with each other on several regional organizations such as the India-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Summit, the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Co-operation), the Mekong Ganga Co-operation (MGC) and the East Asia Summit (EAS).
Connectivity remains a crucial element in forwarding India’s policy towards Southeast Asia. India’s strategic outreach can be achieved only by improved and increased connectivity with that region. In addition to emphasizing on maritime connectivity, it is also necessary to prioritize the construction of India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway as early as possible. Construction of this highway would highly improve India’s connectivity (through the Northeast) with neighbouring countries. This would not only help the economy of the Northeast but it would also act as an additional entry point for India in Southeast Asia.
Over the period of 70 years the status of India-Thailand relations has been changing. During the Cold War era both these countries remained distant neighbours. Post-Cold War era changed that status. But neglect of maritime aspect led to Thailand being termed only as an emerging neighbour. Now with maritime dimension starting to gain importance and a rightful place in India’s foreign policy India and Thailand could be expected to rise to the status of next door neighbours.
(The Author is an Independent Researcher based in Vadodara and can be reached at – email@example.com.)