Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's visit to Thailand this week was a rare and convenient foreign policy opportunity for the junta, writes Saksith Saiyasombut
It’s been a while since the red carpet has been rolled out at Bangkok Government House for a foreign leader who isn’t from an Asian country. That hiatus ended mid-week with the visit of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday.
The timing couldn’t be better for Thailand’s military junta, still yearning for some international recognition. Relations with most Western countries cooled significantly (we reported) after last year's military takeover, led by then-army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who has since installed himself as the country's prime minister.
Since the coup, foreign criticism has been met with petulant and indignant rebuttals by the junta - more often than not from Gen. Prayuth himself - as seen with the most recent backlash against the military government’s revoking of martial law and the subsequent invocation of Article 44, which gives junta leader Gen. Prayuth nigh-absolute power. In the latest development, soldiers have been granted permission to effectively act as law enforcement officials.
So it comes to no surprise that the junta is looking for new (and/or) old friends elsewhere, so far finding them in neighboring Cambodia and Burma (Myanmar), and - more strangely - in North Korea. Most important, though, is Thailand's pivot towards China (we reported). Ties between the two countries - especially between its armies - have strengthened significantly with Deputy Prime Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan traveling to Beijing for the second time since the coup this week, not only to deepen ties but also do some window shopping for military equipment.
Back in Bangkok at Medvedev’s visit, things seems to be going smoothly as well.
"When a friend is in trouble, moral support from allies is needed. Russia still chooses to be friends with Thailand today and we will ensure the bond of friendship remains tight," Gen Prayut said. He thanked Mr Medvedev for his understanding about Thai political developments and vowed he would strengthen ties between the two countries. (…)
The two leaders witnessed the signing of 10 MOUs at Government House. Five were signed between state agencies, including energy, tourism, cultural exchange, anti-narcotics and investment.
Thai and Russian private companies signed five MOUs to strengthen cooperation in machinery engineering, navigation technology, rail infrastructure, fibreglass production and educational exchange between Moscow State Regional University and Siam Technology College.
”Prayut reaches out to Moscow”, Bangkok Post, April 9, 2015
While Russian-Thai relations go back to when Tsar Nicholas II welcomed King Chulalongkorn in 1897 (more can be read here and here), ties between the two countries have not been a priority for either party over the years, especially because of the Cold War and the United States being Thailand’s long-standing ally. And despite a rather turbulent episode with the extradition of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout to the US, which left Russia fuming at the then-administration of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Russian ruble has been steadily rolling into Thailand since the fall of the Soviet Union.
That is mostly thanks to an influx of Russian tourists and expats, who are now ranked third as the country with the most tourists to Thailand, behind Malaysia and China. However, in 2014 the number has dropped to 1.6m tourists - a decrease of 8.6 per cent (source). But that has less to do with the Thai political crisis and more to do with Russia’s own economic woes and its tumbling ruble (partly as a consequence of international sanctions for its meddling in the Ukrainian conflict). The fall in Russian visitors has had a significant economic impact, especially in the Russian stronghold of Pattaya.
Nevertheless, both countries are optimistic about their economic outlooks, with a bilateral trade volume (officially) estimated at almost $4bn and about many potential lucrative deals: Russia could, as Trade Minister Denis Manturov told Reuters, buy 80,000 tonnes of rubber from Thailand, thus alleviating one of the junta's biggest commodity headaches. Also, the prospect of a Russian-Thai free-trade agreement could fill void left by the suspended talks with the European Union, much to the disappointment of European trade lobbyists in Thailand.
But more importantly, the Russians also have this to offer:
"We are feeling out the interest on the Thai side to purchase military equipment," Russian Trade Minister Denis Manturov told Reuters in Bangkok on Wednesday. "Our friends from the Western part of the world are ignoring Thailand." (...) Talks on defence-related sales were focused on military aircraft and related training and services, Manturov said. He declined to give details of specific deals under discussion.
"Russia eyes military sales to Thailand, rubber deals", Reuters, April 8, 2015
Unlike its direct neighbors, Thailand's Air Force is mostly equipped with American F-16 and Swedish JAS-39 Gripen fighter jets. But in the current situation, Russia could bundle an attractive package for the Thai generals, which could also cover their long-held wish for submarines.
It should be by now obvious that a rapprochement between Russia and Thailand could - despite denials by both countries - be of geo-strategic benefit for them, given how the two are internationally spurned (albeit at completely different levels of severity and significance). The Thai military junta could always use a big country at its side for international legitimacy, that is also willing to do business and not ask pesky questions about democracy and human rights, while Russia can continue to develop its trade relations in Southeast Asia.
That said, Western countries won't be giving up on Thailand just yet. Not if if they don't want to leave the playing field to a geo-political rival.
While Thailand is not likely to be welcoming many foreign leaders from the West, the red carpet at Government House may be rolled out for new guests more often - although at what cost?