Thailand’s foreign policy is based on the strategy of ‘bamboo in the wind’, which is deeply rooted in the ground but flexible and can bend in any direction for survival.
A Siamese proverb likens Thai foreign policy to “bamboo in the wind”: solidly rooted in the ground but able to bend in any direction for survival. It is believed that the influence of Buddhism on Thai culture and politics has resulted in this kind of flexibility. Thailand has been able to successfully guard its independence against greater powers during wars.
It is known for avoiding European colonisation – a fate unique in Southeast Asia, alliance with Japan during the Second World War which was explained as a “necessary evil” and Bangkok’s close Cold War partnership with the United States are a few examples from past. Many Western scholars considered it as a “compulsion of a weak state” and some see it as opportunism. For a long, Thailand was considered as far off kingdom, ruled by Kings and military dictators, complex culture and a population of not so intelligent people.
In 1967, Sir Anthony Rumbold, the British ambassador to Bangkok wrote a ten-page confidential document echoing his thoughts about how he perceived the country. Rumbold talked about the domination of Bangkok, the rigid structure of Thai society and the rules which govern it, as well as the unwillingness of Thais to assume responsibility and the existence of endemic corruption.
Rumbold further stated the general level of intelligence of the Thais is rather low, a good deal lower than ours and much lower than that of the Chinese. But there are a few very intelligent and articulate ones. Thailand is governed by a benevolent dictatorship without a dictator. It is benevolent in the sense that it does its best according to its lights to promote the welfare of the people.
If we analyse Thailand’s foreign policy in today’s scenario, the “bamboo in the wind” paradigm still holds to be true as it is a complex blend of prudence, pragmatism, and opportunism. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Thailand’s foreign policy is shaped by regional issues, global actors and external conflicts. Thai foreign policy revolves around three basic principles, namely National security, economic development and credibility/image.
The ultimate objective of Thai diplomacy is to maintain national and regional security while developing mutual trust. With the rise of China as a superpower, the world is rapidly becoming bipolar. On one hand, it calls China a big brother, conducts military exercises with them and sends its cadets to Chinese military schools for training on the other it has supported the USA during the Vietnam crisis and cold war.
Thailand has also been a vocal supporter of ASEAN and many times have used it to diplomatically handle the complex positioning. In 1994 the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) was inaugurated to engage in dialogue, developing mutual trust and preventive diplomacy to minimise the security concerns of Asia Pacific states. Thailand even made North Korea participate in the ARF meetings. In recent times, despite China’s disapproval, Thailand and Indonesia together moved resolutions in support of the Indo-Pacific and began using this term in 2019.
For China, this is USA’s interference in the Asian region and nothing but imagined community to downplay it. However, most of the ASEAN countries despite initial hiccups have now started to view Indo-pacific and quad (USA, Japan, Australia and India) as interdependent, inclusive and based on mutual trust. Instead of taking it as a threat to security Thailand with the help of ASEAN have diplomatically turned it into a level playing field. It shares a good relationship with quad countries. With the USA, the 7th Strategic Dialogue took place in June 2021, and issues of regional security, economic welfare, health cooperation, and a reaffirmation of the US-Thai defence alliance were discussed.
The aim was to create peace and prosperity across the Indo-Pacific Region. The USA also promised full support to Thailand in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic. Japan in 2020 referred to Thailand as “a key country for the further development of the Mekong region in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” Japan wants to establish strong economic connections with it. Thailand is also supporting the Mekong-Japan cooperation for regional peace and security.
As for Australia, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Thailand co-hosted the 1st Indo-Pacific Strategic Dialogue between Thailand and Australia in July 2021. They agreed to further develop Mekong-Australia Partnership and exchanged views on the South China Sea and the Myanmar crisis. They decided to support each other on public health issues especially Covid, Bio circular green economy and issues related to human rights and narcotics.
With India, Thailand committed to cooperation on health issues especially Covid-19, pushing economic growth through India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway Project, exploring new trade initiatives, Bio-Circular-Green (BCG) Economy Model and improving security convergence between ASEAN and India. Thailand and India dedicated the year 2022 as ASEAN-India Friendship Year, commemorating the 30th anniversary of ASEAN-India relations. All of these agreements are made to boost Thai-Indian cooperation under India’s “Look East” “Act East” and Thailand’s Look West policies.
To conclude, it can be said that instead of reacting aggressively to global issues and creating enmity with neighbours, Thailand has intelligently been playing the role of mediator in the Asian region. Despite military coups, political upheavals and external pressures, Thailand has been able to follow its national interest by minimising security concerns and creating an environment for economic progress due to its very intelligent bamboo in the wind approach, which allows it to gravitate toward relevant directions.
(Mehnaz Najmi is a Delhi based academic having more than 12 years of university teaching and research experience.)
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