The India-Thailand relationship built over the centuries has become stronger in recent years. Both the countries acknowledge that India’s ‘Act East’ Policy (AEP) (2014) and Thailand’s ‘Look West Policy’ (1996) will help raise their relationship to a strategic partnership, besides contributing to trade expansion, development, and peace in Southeast Asia. Sustained political and diplomatic engagements apart, India looks forward to capitalise on Thailand’s geostrategic position in a wider context of the booming Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) market of 630 million people and GDP of US$ 2.4 trillion, Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC) and other frameworks like the India Ocean Rim Association (IORA).
With over 150 flights operating per week between the two countries, more than one million Indian tourists and businessmen visiting Thailand per year, and increased cooperation in the areas of connectivity and infrastructure, security, education and technology, their relations have evolved into a comprehensive strategic partnership. Alongside bilateral relations, India and Thailand engage each other through several regional dispensations, such as the India-ASEAN Summit, the BIMSTEC, the MGC, and the East Asia Summit. Located at the heart of Southeast Asia, Thailand is strategically placed as a gateway between the rest of Southeast Asia/East Asia and India. Thailand has the potential to energize India’s relations with Myanmar as the regional/trans-Asian projects, such as the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, the Asian Highway, and the Delhi-Hanoi Rail Link, which are expected to enhance cross-border commercial exchanges and investment linkages, will pass through its territory. India’s North Eastern Region (NER), which shares long and integrated land and sea border with ASEAN countries, holds the key to India’s involvement in such bilateral or regional dispensation.
India and Thailand share historical and cultural links that bind them. Indian diaspora of over 250,000 people in Thailand is also an important bond that strengthens relations between the two countries. A number of high profile exchange of visits between the two countries underscores the importance both countries attach to bilateral cooperation. India’s healthy economic growth and proactive business-friendly policies like “Make in India”, “Skill India”, “Smart Cities”, Goods & Services Tax (GST) and “Digital India” have yielded over 40 percent increase in the inflow of foreign investments to India. Around 30 Thai companies are operating in India e.g., Charoen Pokphand Seeds (India) Pvt. Ltd, CP Aquaculture (India) Pvt. Ltd., Chiatai India Private Limited, Thai Airways International Public Company Ltd.etc, and some of them have been here for more than 20 years. More than 40 Indian companies with investments of over US$ 2 billion are in Thailand. India-ASEAN trade currently stands at US$ 81.33 billion, of which US$ 12.46 billion is with Thailand. India is Thailand’s largest trading partner in South Asian region. Both countries aspire to bring about greater benefits as a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (FTA) on goods, services, and investment is envisaged, and Thailand ranks as India’s 4th largest trading partner in the ASEAN.
Despite geopolitical challenges, India has shown its intent to push through the FTA. The fast-growing Indian economy becomes attractive for Thailand to make an investment in India which is currently estimated at US$ 92.22 million. Kolkata airport is one of the significant projects that Thailand has undertaken in India. With the expansion of trade, Indian business would find many opportunities in the “wider ASEAN region”. Thailand can indeed be “a forward base for Indian investors to ASEAN”. With the advent of the Narendra Modi government in 2014, India has been focussing on enhancing the intensity and expanding the “scope and domain of regional partnership” through strategic cooperation in containing terrorism and radicalization, defense cooperation and improving infrastructure and connectivity. Besides, security, connectivity, economic development, and well-being of the people of India’s North-eastern states in the course of integration with Southeast Asia, particularly Myanmar and Thailand have been added in the AEP matrix.
India and Thailand share a maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal. Both are wary of the geopolitical and strategic ramifications of China’s endeavor to establish a maritime presence in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. Given the inherent challenges, India and Thailand need a shared strategic vision and political will to sustain their strategic partnership. India is already playing a proactive role in joint patrolling exercises with Thailand and Indonesia and has offered to join the littoral states in the implementation of the “Eyes in the Sky” program for patrolling the piracy-infested Malacca Strait. India and Thailand will conduct their first-ever trilateral naval exercise along with Singapore in the Andaman Sea on September 16-20 this month, with an eye on ensuring free and unhindered shipping flow through the Malacca Straits. Both Navies have been conducting regular joint exercises and maritime patrols to counter-terrorism, piracy, and smuggling in the Andaman Sea since 2005; training of officers at each other’s Armed Forces training institutions, and participation as observers in military exercises, staff, and trainee exchange visits. The two countries are also working closely through a Joint Working Group on Security Cooperation.
It is in Thailand’s interests to see “New India” as an emerging Asian power which can play a critical role in sustaining regional as well as global peace and stability. Likewise, India should envisage a “New Thailand” in its full potential at the center of the ASEAN Community. Equally important is to focus on two-way trade and investment. Tourism enhances people-to-people connectivity. It is also essential to effectively promote India’s soft power. Given the complementary economic interests of India and Thailand and their apprehensions about China’s rising foothold in the Indo-Pacific, it is time for New Delhi to cash in on the goodwill that it shares with Bangkok. It should, therefore, be in the interests of both India and Thailand, to strengthen their strategic cooperation, particularly in the maritime domain. In this context, a visit to Thailand by the Indian Prime Minister and other high-level security-related officials will undoubtedly add further impetus to the already-thriving ties between the two countries.
*** The author is Senior Research Fellow at India Foundation ***