India and Thailand discussed opportunities to broaden their defense and security cooperation during a historic visit by India’s vice president to the Southeast Asian state last week.
As I wrote for The Diplomat last month, Indian vice-president Hamid Ansari was set to visit Thailand from February 3 to February 5. Ansari’s visit to the kingdom was the first by an Indian vice-president in 50 years (See: “India’s Vice-President to Visit Thailand, Brunei in February”).
The focus of much of the visit was on security and defense ties, including counterterrorism and maritime security cooperation. That is no surprise since the two countries have been looking to bolster their defense relationship in several areas over the past few years.
“There is tremendous potential for enhancing our bilateral defense ties,” Ansari said in a February 4 speech on India, Thailand and ASEAN at the prominent Chulalongkorn University.
India and Thailand already have a series of bilateral defense interactions in place, including regular joint exercises, office training and exchanges at various levels as outlined in a memorandum of understanding on defense cooperation back in January 2012.
But Ansari said that New Delhi hoped to continue cooperation through technical, human resource development, capacity building and contributing to the development of Thai capacities. He did not elaborate on specifics, including promising areas that have been discussed previously such as defense industry collaboration (“India, Thailand Pledge to Deepen Defense Ties”).
Maritime security is a key component of the bilateral defense relationship and has been a particular focus of the two sides over the past few years. For instance, India’s Chief of Naval Staff Admiral R. K Dhowan’s July 2015 trip to Bangkok saw a specific focus on strengthening maritime cooperation between the two navies, including hydrography, developing comprehensive maritime domain awareness through the exchange of white shipping information, and increasing the scope of coordinated patrols (See: “India Navy Chief to boost Defense Cooperation on Southeast Asia Voyage”).
In a toast during the state banquet hosted in his honor by Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha on February 3, Ansari noted that as maritime neighbors, both New Delhi and Bangkok had “a shared interest in the security of international sea lanes of communication and commerce.” That statement was a clear reference to the South China Sea, where growing Chinese assertiveness has sparked concerns across the Asia-Pacific and beyond. More than $5 trillion of world trade ships through those waters every year.
Again, few specifics were announced relative to some of the other defense-related visits we have seen of late. Both sides did announce that India will participate in the upcoming iteration of Cobra Gold, the Asia-Pacific’s largest annual multinational military exercise. The two countries would also soon hold naval exercises in the Andaman Sea.
During his engagements in Thailand, Ansari was careful to frame the defense realm within the broader context of the bilateral relationship between the two countries as well as its significance for the region more generally.
“Our resolve to strengthen our bilateral engagement in the areas of security and defense will help the region as a whole and promote greater regional economic integration and connectivity,” Ansari said at the banquet.
Bilateral ties are expected to get a further boost when Prayut makes his scheduled visit to India later this year. India and ASEAN will also mark the 25th anniversary of their dialogue partnership in 2017.