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Thailand's Foreign Policy

Thai traditional foreign policy style was understated, subtle, even graceful, and widely lauded within ASEAN as among the most professional. Together with Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, Thailand helped define the "ASEAN way" over the years. Eschewing conflict, always seeking that elusive "consensus," keeping problems behind closed doors -- this was the formula within ASEAN for decades.

But notably, under Thaksin, from 2001 to 2006 Thai foreign policy style was most un-ASEAN, and even un-Thai. With Thaksin often in the lead, Thailand was much more unilateralist and often prone to practice megaphone diplomacy in place of quiet persuasion.

The 2005t tsunami conference in Phuket was a perfect example. Even as conferences were being organized in Japan, Indonesia and elsewhere, Thaksin's then-Foreign Minister Surakiart suddenly announced that Thailand would host a conference with a view towards establishing an early warning system for the Indian Ocean region as a while. (Admittedly, much of this had to do with Surakiart's bombastic style, and his own naked ambitions.) The Thai made little secret of the fact that they expected the center to be established in Thailand. Surakiart browbeat key countries unceasingly to send ministerial-level attendees. In the U.S. case, he was nothing short of delusional, seriously proposing that Secretary Rice attend as her first official act after being confirmed. (He even promised to "personally" escort her to the devastated Khao Lak area.)

In the event, the conference was largely attended by technical ministers or resident Ambassadors, and the Thai dream of achieving consensus on establishing the center here fell apart when the hosts forgot the cardinal tenet of ASEAN diplomacy - always pre-cook the deal in the hallways. Instead, they crudely tried to ram their preferred outcome down the throats of the 40-odd attendees. When several significant countries objected - including India, Australia, and most notably fellow ASEAN member Indonesia - the conference ended with Surakiart suggesting that those countries not happy with the Thai proposal should take a hike. It was not a pretty sight.

In general, under Thaksin Thailand's relations with Malaysia and Indonesia over the south took on a shrillness not frequently seen among these founding members of ASEAN. In Burma policy, the Thai effort to come up with a "Bangkok Process" to give them cover to pursue largely their own narrow interests in Burma collapsed. It was telling that the lead efforts on the problem of Burma rotating into the 2006 ASEAN Chair came from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia rather than from the Thai.

From exile, Cambodia and Brunei were clearly in Thaksin's camp due to his close personal ties with Hun Sen and the Brunei Sultan, Laos and Vietnam might back Hun Sen in the ongoing Thai-Cambodia diplomatic spat.

Some were concerned about Chinese inroads into Thailand and indeed the region as a whole. The Thaksin government had seemed to be embracing the Chinese wholeheartedly. Thailand was being portrayed as the gateway to China. With the benefit of reflection, it seemed to be less of a zero-sum game than might appear. The Chinese were indisputably very active. Yes, they had better tailors and speak better English. They were very close with the largely Sino-Thai crowd that dominated the Thaksin government. But it seemed to be more a return to traditional patterns in the region over hundreds if not thousands of years. This is China's neighborhood, and while they were out of the picture for fifty years after the end of World War II (precisely the period when U.S. presence was paramount), they are back, and they are bringing the A team. Relations with China are steadily increasing across the board.

For reasons of geography, the US cannot realistically match the Chinese visit-for-visit. But the US is capable of directing more high-level attention to the region. Thailand's foreign policy includes a close and longstanding security relationship with the United States. It also strongly supports ASEAN's efforts to promote economic development, social integration, and stability throughout the region.

Thailand served as the chair of ASEAN from July 2008 to December 2009 and served as host to the ASEAN Summit (heads of government meeting) in February 2009, as well as the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, Post Ministerial Conference, and Regional Forum in July 2009. At the July 2009 meeting in Phuket, the United States acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with ASEAN.

Thailand participates fully in international and regional organizations. It has developed increasingly close ties with other ASEAN members--Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, and Vietnam--whose foreign and economic ministers hold annual meetings. Despite skirmishes with Cambodia in early 2011 over border disputes, Thailand’s regional cooperation is progressing in economic, trade, banking, political, and cultural matters.

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