Thailand is aiming to boost its economic and political ties with nearly two dozen nations, as world leaders gather for the APEC Summit later this week in Bangkok.
But observers say with geopolitical tensions at a high between the United States and China, and Russia’s war in Ukraine, Thailand is looking out for its own benefit during the event.
The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, or the APEC, is a group of 21 Asia-Pacific economies whose senior officials and representatives will meet to discuss issues focusing on trade, economic integration, sustainable development, and support for business enterprises.
The meeting will be held between the 18th and 19th of November and will be chaired by Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha at the Bangkok's Queen Sirikit National Convention Center. Chinese President Xi Jinping will attend, but U.S. President Joe Biden will not, being represented instead by Vice President Kamala Harris.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will also not be attending the summit, but First Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov will represent Russia, according to media reports.
For Thailand, their theme for the summit is promoting a Bio-Circular Green, or BCG Economy, a growth model using science, innovation, and technology to maximize the use of resources, maintain ecosystems and reduce waste in efforts to both promote business and counter environmental challenges.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a Thai political scientist and professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, told VOA that Thailand wants the BCG as the legacy and takeaway from APEC.
“[Prime Minister] Prayut doesn’t have much to show for, but under better circumstances with a growth strategy with a clear plan on where Thailand wants to be on the global map, Thailand would get a lot more out of it,” Pongsudhirak said. “Prayut himself is not known for his foreign policy acumen or economic strategy; he is a military man,” he added.
Meeting with China’s Xi
The Thai government would prioritize its international relations and on the diplomatic efforts with China, Pongsudhirak said, citing Prayut’s scheduled dinner meeting with Xi Jinping on the 18th.
“The dinner is key,” Pongsudhirak said. “On the Thai Chinese agenda meeting they will talk about the post COVID recovery, the return of tourism, and China has been interestingly pressing this FTA 3.0.”
Beijing is trying to lure Southeast Asian nations to further expand their trading zones through what they call the Free Trade Agreement Version 3.0, to improve manufacturing supply chains to counter the Washington’s 14-nation Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) aimed at advancing fair and clean trade in the region.
Thailand’s bilateral relations with Russia will also be under the spotlight amid the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine.
Thailand has maintained close relations with Russia, keeping its borders open for visitors despite the ban imposed on Russian arrivals in western countries. According to a forecast by the Association of Tour Operators of Russia, up to 250,000 Russian tourists will have entered the Southeast Asian country by the end of 2022.
Thailand abstained from a United Nations General Assembly vote in October over Russia’s claims they had annexed four eastern Ukraine regions earlier this year. However, 143 countries voted to condemn Moscow’s aggression.
Thailand’s decision to abstain brought criticism at home and overseas. Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Kansai University in Japan, Mark S. Cogan, believes Bangkok is just looking out for its own interests.
“The noise surrounding the UNGA vote may not have won favor in the human rights community, but when Russia is basically the seventh largest market for tourism, I can see why they [Thailand] are a bit pragmatic,” Cogan told VOA. “Thailand badly needs to resume pre-COVID trade levels and tourism. Zero-COVID policies by China will further hurt their economic outlook. And they need Russian tourists as well,” Cogan said.
Thailand’s economy relies heavily on the tourist industry and in 2019, tourism accounted for approximately 11% of Thailand’s GDP, bank records show.
But the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country hard, and Thailand's gross domestic product declined by 6% in 2020. Now that COVID measures are relaxed for international arrivals, Thai tourism officials have recently estimated that 10 million visitors will have visited by the end of 2022.
Pravit Rojanaphruk, a veteran journalist at Khaosod English said APEC is the showpiece that will help Thailand’s economy get back to pre-pandemic levels.
“We hope it will also further promote Thai tourism, Thai as a MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, Exhibitions) venue with the newly reconstructed Queen Sirikit National Convention Center as a showpiece,” he told VOA.
The veteran journalist said the meetings with Xi and Harris should be “top of the list,” in terms of gains for Thailand’s diplomatic efforts. “Xi to reassure China that Thailand is a close ally and keen to welcome Chinese tourist back as soon as possible. Harris to reassure the Americans Thailand will continue to develop close ties,” Rojanaphruk said.
But the summit in Bangkok may not run smoothly after civil society organizations in Thailand vowed to campaign against APEC, in efforts to undermine Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha. Anti-government activist groups Ratsadon and Thalufah have already outlined plans to by protesting the event from the 16th of November.
The government has banned protests at the venue where APEC is hosted and 19 hotels around Bangkok where foreign officials and delegations are thought to be staying. The Royal Thai Police have warned they will crack down on any illegal activity should it arise during the summit.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article included a quote from Mark Cogan which was incorrectly characterized and has been removed.