When the Vietnamese Cabinet led by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung arrives here on July 23-24 for an official visit - and later on to hold a joint cabinet meeting with his Thai colleague, General Prayut Chan-o-cha - Thai-Vietnam ties will be transformed in
Before the peaceful settlement of the Cambodian conflict in 1992, Vietnam was Thailand’s arch-enemy. Every Thai knew the Nom Mak Mun incident in 1980 where their troops clashed briefly on the volatile Thai-Cambodia border – representing the lowest point in Thai-Vietnam relations. The relationship was literally entwined with the Cambodian
Then the tension began to ease during the Chatichai government (1988-1991). Thailand-Vietnam links took a drastic turn for the better when former foreign minister Nguyen Co Thach told the former prime
minister at the end of 1988 that Vietnamese troops would be pulled out from Cambodia. Right after he came to power, Chatichai declared a rapprochement policy of turning the battlefields of Indochina into a
marketplace, much to the chagrin
of his Asean colleagues.
It would take another decade after Vietnam joined Asean in 1995 before the Thai-Vietnam relations had overcome their “trust deficit” and reached the comfort level to embrace each other strategically. Throughout this time, Bangkok reiterated to Hanoi that it would not allow any group or person to use Thai territory to harm Vietnam.
Back then, Thailand turned inward and had to cope also with an economic crisis as well as political paralysis throughout the 2000s as Vietnam continued to grow economically and normalised ties with the US and joined the World Trade Organisation.
When the two cabinets meet for the third time, they will talk business and strategy as never before. They want to do it in style, as next year they will commemorate the 40th anniversary of diplomatic ties. The two countries became strategic partners in June 2013. Now they want to go to the next level — comprehensive strategic partners.
First and foremost, Thailand and Vietnam share one common objective - that their strategic partnership is for regional integration and prosperity, especially regarding their two neighbours, Laos and Cambodia. Their development and economic integration within the Asean Community will be indispensable for community-building in the region.
Secondly, both also share similar allies and friends — the US and China. Thailand is a US treaty ally and has excellent links with China. Vietnam has very close party ties with China and its relations with the US are blossoming.
Within the region, the progress of US-Vietnam ties has been more remarkable given the pair’s past antagonistic experience. Last week’s visit to the US by Vietnam’s Communist Party Secretary-General, Nguyen Phu Trong, was a powerful indicator of how Washington would go to ensure special ties with its former enemy.
At this juncture, both need each other. Last year, Vietnam exported US$30 billion worth of goods to the US, more than Thailand at US$26 billion.
Meanwhile, Thai-China ties have their own dynamics, especially over the past year following the power seizure last May. China has reached out to Thailand as never before, further deepening their strategic linkages.
On the regional challenges, Vietnam has expressed appreciation of Thailand as a coordinating country in conducting the three-year stint, which will end this month. It encouraged Asean to stand firm and have common positions in negotiating with China over the drafting of a code of conduct on the South China Sea. Although it had been a tough call, Hanoi was pleased with the Thai role.
Thailand stressed to Vietnam on every occasion that the Thai policy towards China would be an independent one, designed to ensure regional peace and stability. Thailand would not drag other countries into doing things they did not want to do.
Understanding their latent bargaining power, both Thailand and Vietnam were moving closer together — long rua lum daew kan (living inside the same boat) as the Thais love to say. The aim, to build stronger bonds bilaterally as well as in the Mekong sub-region, whether such a move was related to environment protection, resource sharing, connectivity and security. Both countries see eye to eye that a more cohesive lower Mekong riparian region can prevent meddling by major powers.
The two countries hope that by the end of this year, bus services, between the two countries through Laos and Cambodia could start, together with coastal shipping links.The roads R8, R9 and R12 will connect the neighbours by land.
During Prayut’s visit last year, the two countries agreed to boost two-way trade to US$15 billion by 2020. Now the figure could be higher. Vietnam has been more ambitious than Thailand when it comes to foreign trade. It has negotiated with the Trans Pacific Partnership and joined the Eurasian Union recently, broadening its free-trade networks.
Under the Asean Economic Community, all members must free up investment restrictions to promote direct investment. As key exporters of two major agricultural commodities – rice and rubber — both sides would collaborate to exchange information and technological know-how.
All things considered, as major powers continue to elbow each other for greater influence, Thailand and Vietnam will embrace one another even more.