In 1897, when Siam faced imminent danger from the great colonising powers of Great Britain and France, King Chulalongkorn went to Russia for diplomatic support to ward off the foreign predators. Since then the balance of power strategy preserved the count
Fast forward to the present day – faced with extensive sanctions imposed by the Western countries nearly a year ago – Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is embarking on a “historic” trip to Thailand on April 7-8, making him the first prime minister to visit this country since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The Russian leader will be the first high-ranking foreign dignitary to officially visit Thailand, which has been shunned by the international community following the coup last May. The two-day trip will reboot the long-standing 118-year-old Thai-Russian relations, which have been through ups and downs along diplomatic paths, particularly during the Cold War.
But one thing has never changed in the deep-rooted affinity between King Chulalongkorn and Tzar Nicolas II, which is still strongly resonant in Thai-Russia relations. In May 2007, Queen Sirikit made a week-long state visit to Russia on behalf of His Majesty the King. At the time, the royal visit was billed as the most “extraordinary” event during the centennial year of their relations – akin to King Chualongkorn’s visit in 1897. President Vladimir Putin, who made a state visit to Bangkok in 2003, helped plan the trip. During the visit in St Petersburg, the host restaged for Queen Sirikit the dinner hosted by Tsar Nicolas II in 1897.
More than both sides would like to admit, this visit, albeit short, is extremely significant. Coming as it is when Thailand is politically vulnerable and constantly looking for additional international support from all fronts and colours, Medvedev’s trip can notch up Thai-Russian relations and open up new avenues of cooperation and collaboration.
He will hold talks with his Thai counterpart, Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha and is scheduled to have an audience with members of the Thai Royal Family. Prayut and Medvedev struck a good personal rapport during their first meeting last November on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Nay Pyi Taw.
Both sides agreed to look forward following a bad spell over the extradition of Viktor Bout, the Russian arms dealer, to the US under the Abhisit government. The infamous trial in 2010 also revealed the low level of trust by Thailand’s closest ally over Thai jurisprudence. This time around, the two countries are moving beyond the traditional areas of cooperation especially in energy, trading in agricultural products and tourism for something more strategic in combating transnational crimes, countering terrorism, exchanging intelligence and purchasing military equipment.
Last year, a total of 1.7 million Russian tourists came to Thailand, ranking third behind Chinese and Malaysians. The political crisis in Ukraine and the fall of the ruble currency has impacted on the arrival of Russian tourists during the first quarter of this year. The Thai tourists visiting Russia remain small – roughly 6,000 annually. Thailand and Russia agreed on a visa waiver in 2007. Thai International will stop its Bangkok-Moscow route at the end of this month because it is unprofitable.
Unlike other Asean countries, Thailand’s preference for a US weapons systems has been well known and unshakable. Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Myanmar and Laos are all too familiar with the Russian-made jet fighters, especially the Sukhoi series. Due to the desire to modernise the Thai Air Force and increase its capacity to monitor and defend Thai airspace both in the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand, in line with the new National Maritime Security Blueprint (2015-2021), new models of jet fighters are being considered.
The Thai air force flies exclusively US-made jet fighters, with supplementary aircraft from Sweden and EU in its fleet, but they are old models. Efforts to acquire new ones with more sophisticated missile systems are near impossible from the West given the current Thai political situation and the cost factor. Furthermore, Thailand has constantly complained to the US that its status as a major non-nation ally has not helped Thailand to speed up its arms procurement as pledged.
With a clear mandate to protect its maritime resources, the Thai naval force is also keen to beef up its sea power with planned procurement of submarines and frigates. A decade ago, the Russian-made submarines were often mentioned as a favourite choice. However, of late the China-made ones have trumped other obvious models made in South Korea and Germany.
As the Thai-US alliance remains frozen, other major powers sense new opportunities to approach Thailand, trying to renew or expand strategic ties with Thailand. In so doing, in the long haul, it could further weaken the alliance system, which is the key player in the US rebalancing policy.
Both China and Russia have strongly promoted collective security frameworks since 2012 and jointly challenged the merit of the alliance system in place since the end of World War II. They have called for Asian security by Asian countries.
There is a Thai saying: “kraimaatuengruencharnhai ton rub” – whoever comes to your front yard, you must welcome them. Ironic as it may sound, at this juncture, both major and regional powers, near and far, have knocked on the Thai door wishing to cement further ties, except the familiar Western friends. For the time being, this circumstance has allowed the Thai armed forces and security officials to think deeply about their new strategic needs in the emerging security environment with new players.