Thai officials cosying up to the friendly Russian bear

national February 24, 2016 01:00


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THE VISIT to Russia by Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan and his crew this week sent many signals to the public and international community about Thailand’s foreign relations and security concerns.

The diplomatic ties between Thailand and Russia are at a pivotal stage. The military government under Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has tilted its foreign policy closer to Moscow since relations cooled with the United States and the West after the military coup of May 2014.
Leaders in Moscow have been seeking a wider role in Southeast Asia amid the rising influence of China and the US pivot to Asia. Thailand, as a result, has been looking forward to optional military deals due to its current uncomfortable engagement with Washington. Prayut’s government also needs market diversification for Thai goods, notably low-priced farm products, and hopes Russia could replace the low demand from the West and China.
Although it was initiated by the junta’s number one enemy – Thaksin Shinawatra, the premier toppled in the 2006 coup – the two-in-one idea to barter commodities such as rice and rubber with military equipment has attracted the Prayut government’s interest for quite some time.
Indeed, relations between Thailand and Russia in recent times have been remarked on since the first-ever visit of Russian head of state, President Vladimir Putin in October 2003 when Thailand hosted the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Summit in Bangkok during Thaksin’s government. Since then, a number of high-profile visits were made, notably by Her Majesty the Queen on the occasion of the 110th anniversary of bilateral relations in July 2007. Visits by the Royal Family to Russia have been made frequently since then. HRH Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn visited Russia in 2008 and HRH Princess Chulabhorn in 2011 and 2012.
The engagement with Russia has been highlighted intensively during the Prayut government. The junta-run Thailand badly needs international recognition and friends in the wake of pressure from the West following the military’s intervention in the domestic political conflict.
Prime Minister Prayut seeks comfort meetings with foreign leaders every time he travels abroad for international meetings, and Russian leaders are always available. Prayut has already met his Russia counterpart Dmitry Medvedev three times in over a year. They met for the first time in Nay Pyi Taw during an Asean Summit in November 2014. Medvedev made an official visit to Thailand, the first ever in 25 years by a Russian premier, in April last year. The visit was dubbed a great success as both sides signed a number of pacts for cooperation on energy, investment, drug and crime suppression, tourism and culture. 
The two premiers met again last November during an Apec Summit in the Philippines. Deputy PM Prawit’s visit also will prepare for another meeting between Prayut and Medvedev in Moscow when Prayut attends the Russia-Asean summit there in May this year.
Despite taking economic tsar Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak with him, Prawit – who is in charge of security matters and is the defence minister – reportedly paid much attention to buying new battle tanks and transportation helicopters from Russia.
Prawit denied reports of a deal on the Russian T90 tank. But he has not dismissed its possibility, as a deal with Ukraine on the main battle tanks is in difficulty with only 10 out of 50 having been delivered so far. 
A Thai delegation recently visited the Russian city of Nizhny Tagil, site of the largest main battle tank manufacturer in the world.
In September, it was reported that Russia’s Rostec conglomerate was looking to sell military hardware to Thailand in exchange for commodities such as rubber and rice. The company’s subsidiaries were executing a |contract to supply Thailand with Mi-17 transport helicopters, as well as Superjet 100 aircraft, the Defence Industry Daily reported.
However the deal on military equipment might not be tangible in a short time since the government, despite its wish list, is short of budget due to the economic slowdown and its poor economic management skills.
The Thai military budget has increased consecutively since the previous coup in 2006. It stood at Bt207 billion in fiscal 2016, but Prayut and Prawit have no freedom to cut into this situation. Furthermore, there are many other aspects in their relations with Russia such as economic, culture and crime suppression, which are worth developing.