Boost to India-Thailand ties

BUT FOR THE 1997 economic meltdown, Thailand might have emerged as the leading Asian Tiger among the Southeast Asian countries. Its economy was growing at a robust eight per cent of GDP. The country has now recovered from the problem, though the regional currencies are once again under pressure. For India, Thailand has always been a special friend. So it was not surprising that Prime Minister Vajpayee decided to undertake a four-day visit to Thailand on his way back from the summit with ASEAN leaders. Mr. Vajpayee became the first foreign leader to address the Thai parliament — an honour extended to him in a clear signal of how much Thailand valued India. A clutch of agreements was also signed in Bangkok, but more than these, it was the spirit of the emerging equation that stood out. Prime Minister Thakshin Shinawatra headed the Shinawatra group, Thailand's communications giant, before becoming head of Government. Although some of his predecessors recognised the need for forging closer economic ties with India, conditions at home were not congenial.

The two countries have agreed to go in for a Free Trade Area by 2010 and this could well be the beginning of India's free trade with the entire ASEAN group. The current level of bilateral trade, at $ 1.2 billion, is way below the potential; this level was almost reached in 1997-98. The aim should be to take two-way trade to the level of $5 billion by 2007. The two countries have also agreed to combat terrorism together. Though Thailand itself may not be a victim of terrorism, it has unfortunately earned the reputation of being a sanctuary for many militant groups. The Khmer Rouge of Cambodia; the tribal groups that operate in Myanmar; insurgents from Bangladesh and the North-Eastern States of India; the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam; underworld dons operating in Karachi and Mumbai — they have all been known to operate or take shelter in Bangkok or one of the splendid islands of Thailand. This is something Thai leaders need to deal with. Sanctuary given to these elements has tarnished the image of the country and speaks poorly of the military and police forces. The Thai Government and its agencies must realise that the presence of these unsavoury and dangerous elements harms the country's long-term interests.

Long before the two countries thought of coming together, some Indian companies set up shop in Thailand and have been doing very well there. The two economies have many things in common and there is a need to identify areas where they can complement each other and where they should prepare for some healthy competition. There can be greater synergy in tourism promotion and the open skies policy that Mr. Vajpayee has offered ASEAN airlines should help build this. India's two national carriers have not been able to utilise their aviation rights with Bangkok. Another area in which Thailand and its Prime Minister have evinced interest is using India's expertise and infrastructure in launching a communication satellite. New Delhi has, in fact, offered this service to all its Southeast Asian neighbours. ASEAN should consider the feasibility of putting up a joint satellite in orbit with the help of India. India and Thailand are members in a number of regional and international fora and must start working together to build a consensus with other developing economies.

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