Thailand’s recent efforts to break into African markets are in line with a series of mostly re-engagements by countries of the Global South, the emerging economies of Asia in particular, across Africa. Comparing Asian countries’ approaches toward the African continent, there are obvious differences in terms of weight, official diplomatic presence, and fine-tuned policies (or their absence). There are the heavyweight actors, (such as China and India), other fairly significant partners (such as South Korea or Indonesia), and also some markedly stable players like Japan, which has been involved in African development since the launch of the TICAD (Tokyo International Conference on African Development) summitry in 1993. To be able to grasp African development futures as such, as well as Asia foreign policy aspirations via a broader narrative of Afro-Asian dynamics, it is good to look beyond these “usual suspects” at the role other emerging powers – such as Thailand – are playing in Africa.
In the first years of the second decade of the 21st century, Thailand opened a new and concrete diplomatic chapter focusing on Africa. As part of the “Look West Policy,” in 2013 the Thai–Africa Initiative was launched to increase engagement beyond the country’s immediate neighborhood in the Asian region. By 2017 this initiative had been redefined to mean “prioritizing development cooperation based on trust, equality and mutual interests with African countries,” Krekpan Roekchamnong, the director-general of the Thai Foreign Ministry’s South Asia, Middle East and Africa Affairs Department, said in an interview with the Bangkok Post. He added that the Thai–Africa Initiative had been “elevated … into a new policy of Thai–Africa Partnership for Sustainable Development” with the Thailand International Cooperation Agency (TICA) acting as a key organization on behalf of the government,
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Government officials explicitly underscored that the African continent has been developing rapidly, with high economic growth rates, which makes it attractive as a market for Thai products and investments. When official says that “Thailand wishes to reconfirm its intention to elevate partnership with the African countries,” as emphasized by Don Pramudwinai, Thailand’s minister of foreign affairs, at the Reception of the Africa Day 2017, they are certainly thinking of the opportunities for trade and investment projects. “Currently, Thailand is ASEAN’s biggest trader with Africa and the biggest supplier of rice to the continent… In terms of investment, it is ASEAN’s third largest investor in Africa,” according to the minister. In addition to paving the way for numerous Thai companies — including PTT Exploration and Production in the energy sector, Dusit Group in the hotel business, or the many Thai restaurant and spa owners – to do business in African countries, the Thai government fosters enhanced connectivity. This is a prerequisite for increased trade relations and more intercultural encounters, which are badly needed for long-term collaboration.
Don Pramudwinai also stated that “Thailand has always had confidence in the prospects of Africa and the future it beholds.” Thailand does not refer to the “Spirit of Bandung” in its diplomatic activities as much as Indonesia (for obvious reasons, Indonesia having been the host of the first large-scale Asian–Africa Conference in April 1955). However, Bangkok may use the New Asian–African Strategic Partnership (NAASP) framework launched in 2005 more in the coming years. Bangkok may also seek to offer its own model of development, based on the late King Bhumibol’s “sufficient economy” philosophy, for adaptation in the African context.
To be able to become successful in its enhanced outreach across Africa, Thai diplomacy has been increasing its official presence in the form of embassies and honorary consulates. At present, Thailand operates embassies in Morocco, Egypt, Senegal, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, and Mozambique, together with a consulate in Madagascar, as well as a dozen honorary consulates in different corners of the continent. Two more embassies are planned in Angola and Ethiopia. In a personal interview with Ambassador Charivat Santaputra in Bangkok in November 2016, the importance of so-called “inclusive diplomacy” was mentioned. The Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been working out the context of regular meetings with African diplomats and how to channel their suggestions into the development of bilateral collaboration.
The people-to-people approach seems to be a real aspiration for Thailand, which needs more bridges to be built between the two faraway regions. In addition to more direct flights between Bangkok and Africa, the ministry wants to bring Africa closer to the Thai population in the form of awareness-raising activities.
In this context, Lieutenant Sorawud Preededilok, head of the Department of South Asian, Middle East, and African Affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, brought up the idea of a nation-wide “friendship event” during a conversation in in Bangkok in November 2016. This dream then became a reality when between July 17 and 19, 2017, at Centara Grand Hotel at CentralWorld, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in cooperation with several stakeholders and all seven African embassies in Bangkok (Egypt, Kenya, Libya, Morocco, Nigeria, Sudan, and South Africa) organized “The Colors of Africa: Opportunity, Friendship and Cooperation” event. According to a press release, the event aimed to “promote better understanding of the African continent amongst the Thai public, create awareness of trade, investment and tourism opportunities in Africa, as well as enhance cultural exchange.” The multifaceted event hosted a student quiz competition, several exhibitions, an art display and workshop, and many African cultural and live music performances. It closed with an African fashion show.
It is not surprising at all that after some years of recent engagements Thailand is looking at an enhanced strategic partnership with African countries, which could serve as a mutually meaningful collaborative framework for the long run. One of the fields of attention for Thailand is human resources and capacity development, assisting African countries — especially in the agricultural sector — with the intention to increase productivity. Know-how and technology transfer is supported by scholarships for higher education students from Africa and training fellowships in key areas including food security and public health.
Education and training are major connecting threads on both ends. The idea, for instance, to establish African Studies at a Thai university came up in November 2016. To forge more connections and business interactions and produce mutual benefits in the long term, while serving national interests, the Thai government would certainly enjoy the support of such a specific Africa-focused knowledge base with think tank capacities to advise about future Thai engagement in Africa.
How far Thailand can go with its African endeavor will depend on keeping up a concentrated vision on African partnerships.
Dr. Istvan Tarrosy, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Pecs, Hungary. He is Director of the Africa Research Centre and Secretary of the Africa Sub-Committee of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. His book about Afro–Asian Dynamics was published in Hungarian in 2016.