Thailand loves to discuss plans to help its neighbouring countries. “Prosper-Thy-Neighbour” has been the motto for decades for successive Thai governments. Since the end of the Vietnam war and the subsequent rapid economic development period of 1980s, Bangkok has dished out so many strategies and plans to bring about their developmental and improve their standard of living.
Sadly, none of them have been successfully implemented. Most of them were carried out in a half-baked manner, which left a trail of disappointments and empty promises. However, the CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam) countries have moved on with their own dynamic without a helping hand from the Thais.
After all, Thailand knows very little about their neighbourhood. They played along with the proposed Thai policies, knowing full well that one day they would eventually fall apart due to lack of sustainable strategies. They also learned by watching Thailand’s own behaviour in implementing its own myriad road maps and plans. It would be hard to name a successful project. Such are the realities on the ground.
When Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak called the new Asean members – the CLMV countries – as the new drivers for Asean and Asian economic growth, there was an air of excitement. He called on these countries and Thailand to come up with a joint master plan on infrastructure and connectivity. Then, he argued the region could take full advantage of China’s new economic plans, particularly the Belt and Road Initiatives, which focus on improvement of infrastructure and regional connectivity.
Indeed, if that were the case, Thailand is a late comer. Other countries in Asean, which do not enjoy geographical proximity to mainland Southeast Asia as Thailand, have already moved ahead a long time ago. Singapore and Malaysia, for instance, have already established strong footholds in terms of capital and human resources in the CLMV turf.
Truth be told, there was nothing new at all in Somkid’s proposed economic master plan. He talked as if a new wheel has been invented to propel regional economic development and growth. In fact, the latest plan showed a lack of understanding and appreciation of the new confidence the CLMV countries have and their current development plans. For instance, Vietnam is a leading Asean nation in establishing free-trade agreements with foreign partners, now numbering 17 in all, even though its economy has not yet been recognised as a free market economy. Up until now, Thailand has concluded only six free trade agreements. Indeed, Thailand should learn from Vietnam, not the other way round. Cambodia has been one of the freest environments for services in the region.
The problem is Thai policymakers often think that their neighbouring countries also think like them. They have completely ignored the fact that over the years, these neighbours have gone way ahead in many areas while Thailand was hampered by domestic uncertainties. But the Thais, as demonstrated by the Somkid economic team, still have a condescending view of the new Asean members. In fact, Thailand needs to shape up and quickly relearn regarding the CLMV. Here are four reasons:
First of all, using the acronym CLMVT is a misnomer. The response from neighbouring countries has been mute so far because the new designation was not based on alphabetical order. The “T”– standing for Thailand – stands out like a sore thumb at the end, like a rudder controlling the rest. One senior official argued that it could have been worse if the “T” were placed in front. CLMV was first used in 1994 when the Asean Secretariat began its enlargement efforts referring to the potential of four new members – CLMV – who were supposed to be admitted at the same time.
If Thailand really wants to be a part of this denomination, it should follow the alphabetical order as CLMTV, not the current CLMVT. It would yield a much-needed camaraderie feeling with the neighbours. Of course, it has never occurred to the Somkid team that this kind of nitty-gritty, but highly sensitive, matters much in engaging our neighbours due to perceived superiority.
Secondly, the CLMV has its own economic development plans, which Thailand must absorb, and become a part and parcel of existing cooperation in the group.
Since 2004, the CLMV countries have held a series of summits taking actions to enhance their friendship and cooperation. If Thailand is really serious and wants to link up with CLMV, the Somkid team must take into consideration their action plans which are rather extensive covering wide-ranging issues related to economic integration with the Asean Community and narrowing the development gap among them and with the core Asean colleagues.
Apart from all the huge infrastructure projects, the best way Thailand can help the CLMV would be to assist them in smaller and deliverable projects in agricultural and energy-related cooperation such as production and processing of agricultural products, renewable energy, sustainable hydropower development and development joint research in the field of agriculture, fishery, forestry, livestock, aquaculture and energy.
Thirdly, Thailand should cooperate with Japan and China, the two major Asian development partners, as well as the Asian Development Bank, to help the CLMV with their existing projects. The US used to be on the list, but with the Trump Administration’s lack of policy direction, such a consideration might not be viable.
So far, the Somkid team has only talked about Thailand’s newly developed Eastern Economic Corridor and views the CLMV as its economic expansionist tools. In fact, there are many existing corridors across the CLMV countries, which Thailand should be more aware of such as the North-South Economic Corridor, East-West Economic Corridor, the Southern Economic Corridor under the Greater Mekong Sub-region cooperation.
Finally, Somkid is not a foreign minister. Whenever he has spelled out a regional scheme, he has lacked the required diplomatic finesse and sophistication. His focus has been on the economic. He needs a more holistic view of the CLMV – not only as a vehicle for Thailand’s economic growth.
Under the Prayut leadership, Somkid’s profile has been enlarged to cover foreign affairs at the expense of the Thai Foreign Ministry. It is about time Foreign Minister Don Paramudvinai has the courage to take the driver’s seat in determining policies towards neighbouring countries otherwise in the near future Thailand would be seen as a regional economic hegemony.