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Thailand’s role in Indo-Pacific strategy - Kavi Chongkittavorn

Although much has been said about Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy after US President Donald Trump put forward the broad and vague concept last November, nobody is really clear what it really means and its implications. Eight months have now elapsed. Some key features have emerged through speeches and comments by senior officials including US Defence Secretary Gen James Mattis in Singapore and Matthew Pottinger, Senior Director of Asian Department, National Security Council, in Yangon and Bangkok.

During their meetings with the Thai senior officials from Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently, Mattis and Pottinger envisaged a Indo-Pacific region that is free from coercion with its members able to protect their sovereignty and territorial integrity with respect for fundamental human rights and freedom. In addition, all nations are committed to reciprocal trade, rule of law and the peaceful resolution of disputes. That much was clear.

With this strategy, Washington hopes it will help to promote national strength and resilience of all countries in the region so that no country can dominate others. Mr Mattis and Mr Pottinger have also emphasised the pivotal role Asean would be able to play in promoting peace and prosperity in the region under the FOIP.

For the time being, the Indo-Pacific means the areas within the two oceans, the Indian and Pacific, covering the same geographic spread as the Asia-Pacific concept. But the latest US depiction of these vast combined continents has given added emphasis on India, the world's largest democracy. Together with its "Act East Policy", India has earnestly responded to the US call for a higher profile in multifaceted engagements with the Indo-Pacific countries, especially in maritime security cooperation.

The FOIP strategy was introduced at the right time. Thailand has already expressed strong support for the Indo-Pacific strategy, as it could usher the country into the centre of the regional scheme of things. Here are five important reasons: First of all, Thailand is the forthcoming Asean chair succeeding Singapore in 2019. This year, Asean will not want to stick its neck out as its leaders know very little about the Indo-Pacific concept. At the 32nd Asean Summit in April, Asean leaders discussed the Indo-Pacific but they did not come out with any common positions. The chairman's joint statement simply said that they would look forward to discussing it further.

More details and operational plans are expected in the autumn -- in time for the announcement at the scheduled East Asia Summit in November in Singapore. That would mean the incoming chair, Thailand, has to handle this issue once it has been officially introduced later this year or early next year. Thailand has already expressed support for the US Indo-Pacific strategy and that it would coordinate all relevant views and ideas to come up with Asean positions during its chairmanship.

Secondly, this is an auspicious year for the Thailand-US partnership and friendship. Both countries are celebrating their 200th year of relations. Lest we forget, Thailand is also one of five US allies in the Indo-Pacific region, apart from Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines. But after the end of Cold War, the Thai-US alliance did not enjoy the same significance. The Thanat-Rush communique of 1962, which underpins the alliance, was an offshoot of the 1954 Manila Pact. Truth be told, it was designed with the sole purpose of helping Thailand to fight the menacing communist threat at that time. In the post-Cold War, the former Indochinese countries are Asean members and now Thailand's best new friends.

In more ways than one, the FOIP is considered a new area of strategic convergence in which Thailand and the US can work together using existing networks that have been established for decades. If necessary, they can also creating new ones. Mr Mattis reiterated that with the strategy in place, the countries in the region can work together to promote their economic and security strengths so that they can protect their sovereignty and independence. "No one nation can or should dominate the Indo-Pacific," Mr Mattis said in his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June.

Thirdly, Thailand can promote Asean centrality in assisting implementation of FOIP. Since Thailand helped found Asean in 1967, its principal foreign policy tenet toward Asean has never changed. Asean has become part of the DNA of the country's diplomacy and is still the country's biggest trading partner. Last year, Thailand attracted nearly 10 million tourists from the other nine members, generating billions of dollars of revenue. Therefore, it is natural that Thailand would continue to promote Asean centrality in every possible area. In Vientiane in 2016, Thailand urged its Asean colleagues to raise the profile of 40-year-old Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), the region's first regional code of conduct. Now, with 33 signatories, the Asean members agreed to jointly promote the TAC as an international norm. As part of the new effort, Thailand can help to increase interoperability

Fourthly, Thailand has an independent foreign policy, which has been accepted by all neighbouring countries and major powers. Its century-old balanced diplomacy practice has saved the country's independence as only the nation that escaped colonisation in the region. As the incoming Asean chair, judging from its past performance, Thailand will confidently engage foreign powers in both geopolitical and geo-economic terms to make sure that they coexist with each other without conflicts. With its balanced and non-confrontational approach, Thailand remains a pillar in ensuring that Asean will not sway and side with any major power.

Finally, the country is gearing up to hold a long-awaited election in February 2019. When an exacted date is fixed, it will send a strong message to the international community that Thailand has finally returned to its old democratic self. Western countries, including the US and EU, would resume their bilateral engagements with Thailand in full. Last week, the US State Department finally recognised the four-year continued efforts of Thailand to improve the human rights and working condition of millions of migrant workers. Washington has finally upgraded the country to Tier 2 in the latest Trafficking in Persons Report.

Obviously much work still needs to be done, but suffice it to say with a civilian government after an election, barring the political havoc of the past, Thailand's chair of Asean next year should be an exciting one due to potential new external and internal challenges.