Thailand will be the coordinating country for India within ASEAN from July. In an exclusive interview with INDIA REVIEW & ANALYSIS, the fortnightly journal of the Society for Policy Studies (SPS), Thailand’s Ambassador to India , Chutintorn Gongsakdi, gave a comprehensive view of bilateral relations and what to expect from the India-ASEAN commemorative summit.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q: What are your expectations from the India-ASEAN commemorative summit?
A: Ideally what the India-ASEAN commemorative summit should do is to celebrate 25 years of relationship. It should also give direction to the next 25 years. The theme of the ASEAN–India Commemorative Summit is Shared Values, Common Destiny, and the theme of the ASEAN – India Retreat is Maritime Cooperation and Security. We expect to hear views from ASEAN and Indian leaders on how we can further strengthen and deepen ASEAN–India Strategic Partnership for mutual benefit. India is an emerging power and it is important to develop and define the relationship. The fact that the Thai Prime Minister has chosen to attend the summit along with a high-level delegation at a time when the focus is on speeding up reforms and preparing for next year’s elections show the importance of the summit, which will set the tone for future.
Q: India and Thailand share a maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal. Are there any specific areas of cooperation to usher in closer defence ties?
A: Of all dimensions in Thailand-India relations, security and defence cooperation is one of the deepest and closest. All three services of the armed forces of India and Thailand have close interactions under established mechanisms. In particular, the two Navies enjoy close and cordial cooperation. There have been regular joint exercises/joint maritime patrols near the international maritime boundary to counter terrorism, piracy and smuggling (CORPAT) in the Andaman Sea twice a year since 2005; training of officers at each other’s Armed Forces Training institutions and participation as observers in military exercises, staff and exchange of trainee visits at various levels. Both the countries have also established a Joint Working Group on Security Cooperation. Agreements like White Shipping are also being negotiated. Strategically speaking, Thailand has monitored the development of the concept of “Indo-Pacific” very closely. Though the definition is still not conceptually or operationally clear, but Thailand, as a country with coasts on both the Indian and the Pacific Oceans, will always be interested in any related development.
Q: Thailand received 1.2 million Indian tourists in 2017. How has this enhanced cultural linkages between both the nations?
A: Last year we saw more number of tourists coming from India. Even though we stopped the free visa scheme, the numbers are still going up. At the same time, India is becoming more and more popular for Thai tourists. Thailand is also interested in cruise tourism to Puducherry and Andamans. This exchange of tourism promotes healthy people-to-people contacts. Thailand and India have historical and cultural linkages that go back far beyond our 70 years of diplomatic relations. However, many modern Thais and Indians do not realize these linkages and there is a need to revive relations in a historical and cultural context. Not many know that the modernization of Thailand was done according to the British pattern after King Rama V visited India. Both the countries share many commonalities in terms of food, textiles, language, Buddhism, Hinduism and Ramayana, to name a few. But Thailand wishes that people in India will see the country as more than a tourist destination and recognise it as an important economic partner in ASEAN.
Q: How do you assess India-Thailand economic relations?
A: The trade between ASEAN and India is USD 70 billion at present. Of this, USD 7 billion is with Thailand and we have a surplus with India. We had an early harvest scheme with India but the economic activities are yet to reach each other’s full potential. India is Thailand’s largest trading partner in South Asian region. Thailand ranks as India’s 4th largest trading partner in ASEAN. On investment, 26 Thai companies are already in India and some have been here for over 20 years, like CP which employs 7000 people in India. Leading Thai companies in the field of infrastructure and agro-processing, like Italian-Thai Development, SandyBay Seafood, Hindsiam Bevs and Tong Garden have active and growing business interests in India. Indian companies like Tata Consultancy have a strong presence in Thailand. The fast-growing Indian market remains attractive for Thai investors and we continue to seek and promote the expansion of bilateral trade and investment, and facilitate business partnerships on a regular basis.
Q: The trilateral India-Myanmar-Thailand Highway has not shaped up the way it was envisaged. What are the primary roadblocks stalling construction and what are the possible solutions?
A: There is good progress in terms of physical connectivity. On its part, Thailand has completed the road construction from Thailand into Myanmar (Maesot–Myawaddy–Kawkareik) which has been handed over to Myanmar in 2015. India is working on two projects: construction of 69 bridges from Tamu to Kalewa and construction of 120 km road linking Kalewa and Yargi. We need to push for more software connectivity. Thailand supports further discussion on pending software issues such as India, Myanmar and Thailand Motor Vehicles Agreement (IMT MVA). Thailand fully supports the extension of the Trilateral Highway Project to connect with the Mekong sub-region. Once it is complete, the Trilateral Highway will be a long land-bridge linking South Asia and Southeast Asia.
Q: What are your expectations from the India, Myanmar, and Thailand Motor Vehicles Agreement which will be the first cross-border facilitation agreement between South and Southeast Asia?
A: The IMT MVA is a necessary component to realize the South Asia and Southeast Asia linkage. The issue has also been discussed between India and ASEAN, and the outcome document of the upcoming summit will reflect the discussions. We are also interested in cultivating other kinds of linkages like air and maritime connectivity between airports and seaports in India and those in Southeast Asia. It is also important to ensure that connectivity is not limited to the North-East Region, but it also covers other parts of India.
Q: The Rohingya refugee crisis raised fears of insurgents using Thai and Indian soil to perpetrate violence. What are the ways in which India and Thailand can cooperate to address this issue?
A: The displaced persons might be victims of international human trafficking syndicates and international extremist groups. We believe that preventive measures are better than curative, and that the challenge should be addressed at root cause in the area of origin. Thailand and Indian intelligence agencies have been working closely together in the field of counter terrorism in general. We could enhance information / intelligence sharing on the possible terrorist links that could harm peace and stability in our region.
Q: What are the areas of cooperation you are concentrating during your tenure?
A: The focus is to convince the Thai people to see “New India” in its fullest potential as an emerging power and to convince Indian citizens to see “New Thailand” in its fullest potential at the centre of the ASEAN Community. Thailand should be seen in the context of the ASEAN market of 630 million people and GDP of USD 2.4 trillion; as well as in the contexts of the BIMSTEC, Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC) and frameworks related to the Indian Ocean, such as IORA (Indian Ocean Rim Association). Equally important is it to increase two-way trade and investment activity by realizing business deals and strongly encouraging more Thai businesses and investment to come to India, in response to “New India” Policy and other initiatives. Promoting exchange of people through culture and tourism and Buddhist cooperation will also remain a priority.