The two Asian neighbours are rapidly cementing a partnership based on their growing economies, closer trade and cultural links, road and sea connectivity, and a robust defence relationship.
INDIA’S GLOBAL FOOTPRINT HAS WITNESSED A SIGNIFICANT expansion since the end of the Cold War. It has been particularly evident over the last three years since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power.
With the transformation of India’s Look East Policy (LEP) launched by Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in 1992 into Act East Policy (AEP) announced by Mr Modi during his first visit to Myamnar in November 2014, relations with the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have witnessed an appreciable expansion across myriad sectors and areas. These are, however, early days. More significant results are expected in the coming years. Relations with Thailand have shown considerable growth in diverse fields. Immense untapped potential which remains to be harnessed still exists. It is incumbent on both sides to invest the necessary vigour, focus, and political capital in the relationship so that both sides can prosper rapidly to the advantage of the people of the two countries as well as ensuring security, peace, and prosperity in the region.
India and Thailand are today celebrating 70 years of establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations. Diplomatic ties were formalised soon after India achieved independence in 1947. Relations between India and Thailand are, of course, not of recent origin. Religious, cultural and trade links have existed for over two millennia. Their languages and mythology reflect their shared cultural and civilisational linkages. References are found in ancient Indian literature characterising Thailand as Swarnabhumi or the Golden Land. According to some historians, Hindu influence reached Thailand over 2,000 years ago. This was soon after senior monks Sona Thera and Uttara Thera were sent by Emperor Ashoka to spread the gospel of Lord Buddha in Thailand in 3rd Century BCE. Hindu influence is clearly visible in Thailand’s religious practices, customs, traditions, worship of deities, architecture of palaces and temples (wats), and in the arts, sculpture, dance, drama, and literature. Royal coronation ceremonies are conducted with Brahminical rites, and the Thai monarchs of the current Chakri dynasty have adopted the title of “Rama” on ascending the throne (the present King, His Majesty Maha Vajiralongkorn is Rama X).
Several other socio-cultural habits and festivals of Thai and Indian people are similar. The influence of Pali and Sanskrit on the Thai language has been considerable and is particularly noticeable in the terminology connected with statecraft, science and technology, and education. The Thai lore of Ramakien, a local version of the Ramayana set in the Thai city of Ayutthaya, and the teachings of Lord Buddha, bind the peoples of the two countries together. The 800-year-old connection between the Tai people and Ahoms of North East India has served as an enduring link between the two countries.
In comparatively more recent times, King Chulalongkorn, known as Rama V, paid a royal visit to India in 1872. In 1915, India was honoured to receive another royal visit from Thailand by King Vajiravudh (Rama VI). The centenary of the latter was celebrated two years ago. The strong and continuing connect that was fostered between the Indian port city of Surat and Surat Thani in southern Thailand was also commemorated.
During the Cold War years, Southeast Asia, including Thailand, did not figure prominently on India’s strategic map or economic calculus. There are many reasons for India’s relative neglect of this region during this period. Because of its colonial links, India’s ruling elite had an essentially Western orientation and thinking in the post-1947 period. Economically, due to the fact that this region was less developed than India until the 1970s, Southeast Asia was not an attractive trading and investment partner. India’s own economic policies were insular and protectionist. The fact that India’s overland linkages to Southeast Asia were blocked did not help either. Myanmar closed itself to the rest of the world in the early sixties, while East Pakistan/Bangladesh was not amenable to providing transit facilities. Politics too intervened. India and the Southeast Asian countries were on opposing sides of the Cold War divide.
It is now obvious that these perceptions about the region and about each other were highly flawed. The two sides failed to leverage their shared experience, cultural affinities, and a remarkable lack of historical baggage to build stronger, more diverse, and comprehensive relations with each other.
The paucity of high level contacts between India and Thailand is visible from the fact that from the period starting in 1947, when bilateral diplomatic ties were established, till 1992, there were only two prime ministerial visits from Thailand to India. These were the visits of General Kriangsak Chomanan in 1979 (who remained at New Delhi airport on his way home from a visit to the Soviet Union), and of General Chatichai Choonhavan in March-April 1989. In 1983, Prime Minister General Prem Tinsulanonda visited Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, but not India. From India the only prime ministerial visit to Thailand during this period was that of Rajiv Gandhi in 1986, although there were visits of President V.V. Giri in 1972 and of Vice President Dr Zakir Hussain in 1966. Rajiv Gandhi's visit was prompted by a need long felt on both sides to remedy the years of neglect.
It is surprising that notwithstanding the historical ties between the two countries, India did not get the privilege of receiving His Majesty King Rama IX Bhumibol Adulyadej, although he and Queen Sirikit visited several countries, including Pakistan, during their extended world tours from 1959 to 1967. This came to pass on account of the virtual absence of bilateral ties at political level between the two countries during the Cold War years. All this underwent a swift transformation with the visit of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, followed by that of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in 1993.
Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee meeting Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej in Bangkok on 10 October 2003. Photo courtesy: the archives of the Prime Minister’s Office, New Delhi.
Despite the coolness in political relationship between the two countries during the early years, people-to-people contacts, as well as cooperation in the fields of education and culture, continued to thrive. All this contributed to a large amount of mutual goodwill between the two countries.
India’s economic and financial crisis of 1991 coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was India’s valued economic and strategic partner. Both these developments compelled India to take a fresh look at its foreign policy. It was owing to Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s strategic vision that he quickly grasped the changed economic and strategic paradigms of international relations in the early 1990s. New Delhi’s “Look East Policy” and Bangkok’s “Look West Policy,” launched in 1996, converged to bolster economic and trade links. ASEAN emerged as a natural partner for engagement in the Asia-Pacific region. It is a partnership based both on a shared heritage and a pragmatic appraisal of economic growth and prosperity, peace, and stability.
Since the early nineties, there has been steadily increasing cooperation on all fronts. India has begun to figure increasingly in the strategic thinking of Southeast Asia. When India became a nuclear power in 1998, major powers like the United States, Japan, and many other countries were compelled to sit up and took note of this important development. ASEAN wanted closer ties with India to balance the influence of China.
The high point of recent years under the LEP was the visit by Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra as the chief guest at India’s Republic Day celebrations in 2012. She visited India again in December that year to participate in the Commemorative Summit held to mark twenty years of the Dialogue Partnership between India and ASEAN. Dr Manmohan Singh, the then prime minister visited Thailand in May 2013 on a two-day bilateral visit. All these visits and interactions provided a strong fillip to bilateral partnership and helped to diversify and expand the multifaceted relations. Bilateral trade registered the highest level of more than US$ 9 billion per annum between 2012-13 and 2014-15. After this performance trade diminished to about US$ 8.5 billion in 2015-16 on account of anemic performance of the international economy.
In 2003, Thailand emerged as the first ASEAN country to secure a Framework Agreement in order to establish a bilateral Free Trade Area (FTA) with India. The early harvest scheme of 2004, in which tariffs on 82 items (two more items were added later) were slashed, proved to be harmful to the Indian industry. This made Indian business and government apprehensive about opening up the market to more Thai goods. It will be necessary to arrive at a comprehensive yet balanced bilateral trade deal so that it is able to win the confidence of the trade and industry circles of both the countries. Conclusion of the elusive FTA should be the topmost priority of both the countries.
In the past two decades, with regular political exchanges and growing trade and investment, India’s ties with Thailand have evolved into a comprehensive partnership. The India-ASEAN Agreement on Trade in Goods was implemented in January 2010, and the India-ASEAN FTA in Services and Investments was signed in September 2014 and came into force in July 2015.
In India there was a domestic political and public consensus on India’s LEP. More could certainly have been done to build relations with Southeast Asian countries, but the overall balance sheet during this period is satisfactory.
With the arrival of the Modi government it was felt that fresh energy and vision needed to be infused in ties with the region. Thus was launched the Act East Policy in November, 2014 with the avowed intent to enhance the intensity and expand the scope and domain of regional partnership. Much greater emphasis is sought to be provided to areas of strategic cooperation including the fight against terrorism, radicalisation and foreign terror financing, security and defense cooperation, and promoting infrastructure development and connectivity. Several fresh initiatives have been mooted and earlier projects are sought to be put on fast track. Positive green shoots are already visible.
India places ASEAN at the core of its Act East Policy and at the centre of its hopes of an Asian Century. The AEP’s reach has been expanded to cover relations with Japan, Republic of Korea, Australia, Pacific Island nations, and others. There is a special emphasis on India-ASEAN cooperation in India’s domestic agenda on infrastructure, manufacturing, trade, skills, urban renewal, smart cities, and Make in India programmes.
PM Modi discussed bilateral issues of mutual interest with Thai PM General Prayuth Chan-o-cha on the sidelines of ASEAN Summit in Nay Pyi Taw in November 2014. On 10 November 2016, PM Modi visited Bangkok to pay tribute to the departed King of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej who passed away after a long and eventful reign of seventy years in October 2016. Vice President Hamid Ansari visited Thailand in February 2016, and PM Prayuth toured India in June 2016. A comprehensive and detailed Joint Statement was issued during the latter's visit, charting a roadmap for future activities and directions. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn visited India in November 2016. She was awarded the first World Sanskrit Award by the Vice-President of India. In June 2015, Sushma Swaraj, the Minister of External Affairs, visited Thailand to co-chair the Seventh Meeting of India-Thailand Joint Commission, and to attend the Sixteenth World Sanskrit Conference in Bangkok. This vibrant exchange of visits underscores the importance both countries attach to the bilateral partnership.
A significant addition in the AEP matrix is the inclusion of security, connectivity, economic development and well-being of people of the North Eastern States of India by assimilating them in the network with Southeast Asia, particularly with Myanmar and Thailand.
Over the last several years India has steadily expanded its defence ties with the East and Southeast Asian countries. These countries are engaged through regional confidence-building and cooperation mechanisms like the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP), and the MILAN exercises that India holds every alternate year.
Thailand has played host to ships of the Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard on several occasions in recent years. The cooperation needs to be continued through technical and human resource development, capacity building, and through contributing to the development of Thai capacities, both physical and human.
Maritime considerations have to figure more prominently in India’s foreign policy particularly in the coming decades. India and Thailand are maritime neighbours and share a maritime boundary in the Andaman Sea. The Indian Ocean is one of the most militarised regions in the world. India’s maritime cooperation with Southeast Asia has been recently expanded. India set up a new Tri-Services Command in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands a few years ago. The Chinese are trying to establish a maritime presence in Southeast Asia as well as the Indian Ocean. This might not be necessarily directed against India, but still it has considerable geopolitical and strategic ramifications. India is already involved in joint patrolling exercises with Thailand and Indonesia, and has offered to cooperate with the littoral states in the implementation of the “Eyes in the Sky” programme for patrolling the piracy-infested Straits of Malacca.
Much more can be done to improve connectivity. The India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway reaching Mae Sot in Thailand will expand land connectivity through North East India to Southeast Asia. The Indian Cabinet took a decision on 12 July 2017 to construct a highway between Imphal and Moreh. This will significantly enhance connectivity of North East India with Southeast Asia. Plans for the development of deep-sea ports and new special economic zones in Dawei in Myanmar and Pak Bara in southern Thailand will connect the eastern seaboard of India with Thailand and beyond. The development of the East-West and North-South corridors by Thailand and the linking of these transport-related projects are expected to further enhance connectivity and expand trade and commerce with India. Discussions are in progress to constitute a Joint Working Group on Strategic Connectivity.
Tourism is an area that embodies high potential for enhancing people-to-people contacts as well as bilateral business and economic exchanges. Currently, there are more than 150 weekly flights between India and Thailand. Flights from Thailand connect with nine Indian cities. More than 1.1 million Indian tourists visit Thailand every year. On the other hand, just about 100,000 tourists from Thailand come to India, mostly to Buddhist sites. This number needs to see an increase. To promote larger tourist inflows, India had started issuing single entry e-visas for Thai citizens. On request, this facility has been expanded in early 2017 to double entry e-visas. In addition, India has recently approved multi-entry business and tourist visas for five years. Earlier they were being granted for one year at a time. India needs to improve flight and road connectivity as well as infrastructure including hotel accommodation and upkeep of sites at religious places in general, and Buddhist sites in particular.
Despite the large size and rapid growth of the two economies, trade and investment between India and Thailand remains modest. It is essential to encourage the private sector to make investments in infrastructure and manufacturing in each other’s country. In order to achieve this, the two governments should provide a supportive environment and a predictable, encouraging, and comprehensive legal and taxation framework. The implementation of the Goods and Services Tax by India in July 2017 will make India's taxation system transparent, introduce efficiency, control corruption, and improve ease of doing business. This should act as further incentive for Thai business and investors to look more actively at the Indian market.
There are, at present, over 40 Indian companies with investments of over US$ 2 billion in Thailand. Similarly, there are around 30 Thai companies operating in India. There is potential for an additional investment of US$ 3 billion by Thai companies in green and brown field projects in India in the near future.
The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), in which both India and Thailand are members, is a good framework for regional integration. There is a possibility for trade and economic connectivity between India’s neighbours like Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh with ASEAN countries like Myanmar and Thailand. The sub-regional initiative of BBIN (Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal) is a good platform for this purpose since the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation has been floundering on account of obstacles created by Pakistan in its smooth functioning.
Time is opportune, as India and Thailand celebrate 70 years of diplomatic relations, to identify and focus on areas of cooperation which will promote the wellbeing of citizens of the two countries and security, stability, and prosperity of the region. A large Indian diaspora living and working in Thailand is an important bond that cements relations between the two countries.
This is a most felicitous moment for any Thai commercial enterprise for investing or doing business with India. The Indian economy is expanding at a rapid pace of around 7.5 per cent a year, making it the fastest growing major economy in the world. This has been possible due to proactive and innovative business-friendly policies like Make in India, Skill India, Smart Cities, Digital India, and several others. The Indian government’s effort, in the words of PM Modi, is to “replace red tape with red carpet.” This has paid rich dividends with an over 40 per cent increase in the inflow of foreign investments into India in the last year.
New Delhi and Bangkok need to further strengthen their strategic, security, defense, and economic cooperation given the geostrategic demands and challenges in the region. The good news is that both Thai and Indian leaders are aware of the threats and impediments ahead and are determined to overcome them. They are also conscious of the huge opportunities and strengths that they possess and are determined to harness them to mutual benefit and advantage.
Ambassador Ashok Sajjanhar, a postgraduate in physics from Delhi University and a career diplomat, retired as Ambassador of India to Sweden and Latvia in the rank of Secretary to the Government of India in July 2012. He has served as Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan and has held several significant positions in Indian Embassies in Washington, Moscow, Brussels, Geneva, Bangkok, Teheran and Dhaka. Ambassador Sajjanhar negotiated for India in the Uruguay Round of Multilateral Trade Negotiations. As Deputy Chief of Mission in Bangkok, he was an active negotiator in the India-Thailand Free Trade Agreement (FTA) as well as India-Asean FTA discussions. The US-India Nuclear Deal was signed by PM Dr. Manmohan Singh and President Bush during Ambassador Sajjanhar’s term in Washington. Currently, he is Honorary President, Institute of Global Studies, New Delhi, and is on the governing boards of several other organisations.