Thailand: The Future of “Act East” in an Era of Modi 2.0

With a trilateral naval exercise scheduled to take place later this year with Thailand and talks underway surrounding Thailand’s intention to purchase Indian BrahMos supersonic missiles, it is clear that New Delhi has set its sights on the strengthening of Indo-Thai relations as the next step in Prime Minister Modi’s “Act East” Policy.

Historically, India and Thailand have not shared a very strong relationship. Between 1947 and 1992, the Prime Minister of Thailand has only visited India twice, both of which were extremely brief, uneventful meetings. In 1983, Thai Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda took a tour of South Asia, visiting Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh, but failed to make even a short trip to India along the way. However, India too did not make an effort to increase diplomatic relations with Rajiv Gandhi, in 1986, being the only Indian Prime Minister to visit Thailand during this entire time period.

However, since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, New Delhi has adopted a so-called  “Look East” policy to aid in its search for a new partner to fill the economic and strategic hole left behind by the Soviets. Kick started by former Prime Minister of India, Narasimha Rao, the policy mirrors Thailand’s own “Look West” policy, which was launched in 1996, marking the beginning of a period of renewed India-Thailand cooperation. In 2003, Thailand became the first member state of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to create a Free Trade Area (FTA) with India. Close to a decade later in 2012, former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra visited India as chief guest of its Republic Day celebrations. She returned in December of that year to take part in the Commemorative Summit, celebrating  20 years of the Dialogue Partnership between India and ASEAN. After these visits, bilateral trade between the two countries rapidly increased, reaching around 9 billion USD during the 2014-2015 fiscal year and is expected to reach 16 billion USD per annum by 2021. Over the course of the past three decades, on account of now almost regular economic and strategic exchanges, India and Thailand’s relationship has evolved into a blossoming partnership.

According to sources at the Hindu, “negotiations are on” between India and Thailand regarding the sale of Indian BrahMos missiles. This comes on the heels of the Royal Thai Navy Chief Admiral Ruddit’s visit to India in December, reflecting the effectiveness of increased visits between high level members of the Modi government and Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s government. Furthermore, Thailand has requested India for assistance in the repair of their Dornier maritime patrol aircraft. Bangkok has become increasingly dependent on India for not only weaponry and other forms of militarial infrastructure but also as a key source of support in maintaining its autonomy in the Indian Ocean, one of the most highly militarized bodies of water in the world. As China aims to increase its presence in both the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, the upcoming trilateral exercise between India, Singapore, and Thailand is of utmost importance. First proposed by Prime Minister Modi during the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore, the exercise not only serves to deter China from meddling in the affairs of India, Thailand, and Singapore but also is part of a larger effort by Modi, which is laid out in his “Act East” policy, to create a network of alliances within Southeast Asia. Aside from this exercise, Modi has carried out numerous joint operations with other ASEAN nations such as Indonesia, Myanmar, and Vietnam. 

Although the recent general elections are behind him, it is clear that Modi has not forgotten about the proposed partnerships with Southeast Asian nations that played a central role in the foreign policy of his first term. If Prime Minister Modi’s latest efforts to woo over Thailand with promises of advanced technological weaponry and Indian milarial support serve to show anything, it is that as the world increasingly worries about a rising China, it must not overlook a rapidly growing India, whose promising alliances with Southeast Asia may soon be a key factor in isolating China.

Photo Credit: Sputnik International