When S. Jaishankar, India’s External Affairs Minister visited Thailand in August, he met with then-Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to sign two low-key agreements on healthcare and medical research. It was an important moment marking 75 years of bilateral ties between the two countries.
While on the periphery compared to Thailand’s relations with China and the United States, its relationship with India is growing and is becoming essential as the Kingdom extends itself beyond Southeast Asia.
The growing ties between India and Thailand are based on pragmatism and mutually-beneficial goals.
The relationship focuses especially on security cooperation and trade, as well as a long history of cultural exchanges. Prior to Indian independence in 1947, relations date back to the era of Emperor Ashoka the Great, ruler of the Mauryan Empire, who dispatched senior monks to ancient Thailand in the third century BCE, marking the beginning of a great Buddhist tradition.
Thailand was among the first to recognise India. However, cordial relations ended during the Cold War, when Thailand moved closer to the United States, signing on to the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation in 1954 and the Thanad–Rusk Joint Communiqué, a bilateral defence initiative in 1962.
True bilateral relations began when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi paid a visit to Thailand in 1986, followed by a visit to India by Thai Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan in 1989, who promised to “turn battlefields into marketplaces”.
Gandhi and Chatichai later established the India–Thailand Joint Commission establishing further Indian diplomacy in Southeast Asia as it promoted its ‘Look East’ strategy, a policy designed to boost Indian economic performance amid the harsh consequences of globalisation.
Today, India and Thailand cooperation extends beyond ASEAN and Southeast Asia. Both are extensively linked to regional cooperation initiatives and regional fora, including the India-ASEAN Summit, the East Asia Summit, the Mekong–Ganga Cooperation, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, and the Indian Ocean Rim Association.
Thailand has become the fourth largest trading partner in Southeast Asia for India, and India tops all other countries in South Asia for Thai goods.
Bilateral trade grew to almost $8 billion in 2016 and lept to $15 billion by 2021, all without a bilateral free trade agreement.
India showed further pragmatism in its reaction to the May 2014 coup d’état that removed the democratically elected former PM, Yingluck Shinawatra. India urged a “restoration of normalcy based on the principles of democracy”, but that did not interrupt relations as much as it did with the United States.
Current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been willing to engage with Thailand, despite an early exit from the Maitree joint military exercises in the months after the 2014 coup. In solidarity with Thailand, Modi paid his respects to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej after his passing in October 2016.
Of particular importance to Thailand, other than economic cooperation, is joint security and counter-terrorism cooperation. Thailand and India have established bilateral defence initiatives, which include officer training, joint exercises and security dialogues.
In the Indo-Pacific, the current trend is toward increased multilateral military cooperation, encompassing counter-terrorism, maritime piracy, arms trafficking and mitigation and adaptation to natural and man-made disasters. Thailand and India have established bilateral defence initiatives, which include officer training, joint exercises and security dialogues.
This security cooperation grew in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, as well as after the Bali bombings in 2002 and the Mumbai attacks in 2008. India was among the countries to agree that Thailand could be a staging area for future attacks across the region because of its convenient geography and porous borders. Cooperation with Thailand was essential to dealing with its own efforts to curb terrorism. Prayut visited India in an effort to boost maritime security cooperation and counterterrorism strategy in 2018.
The bilateral partnership on counter-terrorism is also important because of ASEAN’s institutional weaknesses. In general, ASEAN’s efforts are supplementary to a member state’s individual efforts, partially because of a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of states and a lack of consensus building within the institution.
India’s partnership with ASEAN is important, because it can help bridge divides among cultural and religious minorities. Thailand has a lot to learn from New Delhi, as its disastrous policy in the country’s southernmost provinces has enraged religious and ethnic tensions for decades. This is not to say that India has not had difficulties of its own, as the Modi government’s policies in the Kashmir region have inflamed tensions and fueled mass discontent.
In other words, India’s experiences with terrorism and its adaptation processes are important lessons learned—due to heavy-handed mistakes—and provide some best practices for Southeast Asian countries.
On the downside, India and Thailand’s pragmatic relationships with the Myanmar junta are cause for concern. Both have cultivated relationships with the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s brutal military. When General Min Aung Hlaing overthrew Aung San Suu Kyi from power in the February 2021 coup d’état, both India and Thailand were cautious with their words—even recently when the junta executed four political prisoners in late July. Their personal relationships with Gen. Hlaing predates the coup. Myanmar’s General Min Aung Hlaing courted Prayut immediately after, asking for his “help” on democracy, while Jaishankar recently claimed that India’s foreign policy transcends “the politics of the day”.
In part, these relationships are about economics. Thailand’s state-owned oil company PTT has been engaged in Myanmar for years, while India’s private investments exceed more than $1.2 billion. Security is also a concern for India as Myanmar has been used as a staging ground for insurgent attacks on Indian soil. Thailand has only begun to recognise the erosion of security along its border with Myanmar, evidenced recently by a fighter jet encroaching upon Thai territory.
Security cooperation with India provides a gateway to other areas of cooperation, but Thailand has engaged with South Asian partners through the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, commonly known as BIMSTEC, which also comprises Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan. This seven-member bloc represents 1.6 billion people, a combined GDP of $2.8 trillion, and a vital institutional link between Southeast and South Asia. The initiative perfectly aligns with India’s Act East and Thailand’s Look West economic policies. It also provides connectivity to ASEAN, both in terms of trade, infrastructure and regional diplomacy.
Both India and Thailand need that connectivity as other forums such as South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and ASEAN in different ways have proven troublesome, in part due to ASEAN’s difficulties recently in adapting and responding to the military coup in Myanmar, and SAARC’s institutional weaknesses. Through BIMSTEC, India and Thailand have been taking on leadership roles, through infrastructure and technology cooperation. Modi called for more port infrastructure in 2017, especially through the Mekong–India Economic Corridor (MIEC), which integrates four Mekong River countries and port cities together, such as Bangkok and Chennai.
Security, infrastructure, and economic cooperation with India provide a much needed gateway to the Indo-Pacific and linkages out of traditional pathways through the United States and China. Thailand’s growing economic cooperation with India should also help reinforce the idea that economic policies should be regionally balanced, with less of an emphasis on binding, if not expensive Belt and Road Initiative projects that have ruffled feathers with Beijing, cause unnecessary delays, or cause problems with its neighbours.
The reality is that Thailand’s partnerships with India are much more pragmatic than those with the United States. Biden snubbed Thailand at a democracy forum, inviting just three Southeast Asian countries to its Summit in December 2021.
India has shown greater restraint despite some differences toward autocratic behaviour. The relationship can also act as a balancer in navigating dynamics with China. Thailand’s relationship with India is also revealing as it demonstrates a willingness to expand its foreign policy beyond the boundaries of Great Power rivalry. While its relationship with India is certainly a marker in that regard, Thailand has also enhanced its bilateral relations with both Quad members, Australia and Japan.
Thailand’s bond with India also provides further evidence that its foreign policy has taken steps from being just a key geopolitical location for Great Powers and an important strategic partner in Southeast Asia to becoming an emerging partner in the wider Indo-Pacific. In this rapidly-changing and ultra competitive region, finding partnerships that can endure are critical—and crucial to Thailand’s national interests.