Quest for the holy grail: Thai foreign minister jets to India as RCEP heads to the wire (video)

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As the curtain begins to come down on Thailand’s year as Asean Chair Thailand foreign minister Don Pramudwinai has made a lightning three-day visit to India.

India's Minister of External Affairs, Dr Subrahmanvam Jaishankar (R) greats Don Pramudwinai in Delhi today, October 10
India’s Minister of External Affairs, Dr Subrahmanvam Jaishankar (R) greats Don Pramudwinai in Delhi yesterday, October 10 @DrSJaishankar

In India Mr Pramudwinai co-chaired the 8th India-Thailand Joint Commission Meeting (JCM) for Bilateral Cooperation with his counterpart, Dr Subrahmanvam Jaishankar, India’s Minister of External Affairs .

The two ministers also witnessed the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Devawongse Varopakarn Institute of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Thailand, and the Foreign Service Institute, Ministry of External Affairs of the Republic of India.

The agreement will see greater cooperation between the two countries in developing training programmes for young diplomats.

Thai-India relationship blooms

India's Minister of External Affairs, Dr Subrahmanvam Jaishankar (L) chats with Don Pramudwinai, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Thailand in August 2019
India’s Minister of External Affairs, Dr Subrahmanvam Jaishankar (L) chats with Don Pramudwinai, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Thailand in August 20 @DrSJaishankar Twitter feed

The Thailand-India relationship has been going gang-busters lately.

Figures published by the Indian Embassy in Bangkok show that trade between the two countries grew by about 60 per cent between 2016 and 2018.

Last year two-way trade between the two topped $12.46 billion, with Thailand sending goods worth $7.60 billion to India and receiving $4.86 billion in goods back.

In  addition to the blossoming trade relationship, Mr Pramudwinai’s lightning trip to India comes ahead of two crucial meetings important to Bangkok.

An informal India-China summit where Chinese President Xi Jinping and India Prime Minister Narendra Modi will meet commenced today (Oct 11) in Mamallapuram, southern India. Meanwhile, in Bangkok, the 9th intersessional ministerial meeting on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) free trade agreement (FTA) also commenced today.

The two-day Bangkok meeting is expected (hoped) to be the last round of negotiation before conclusion of the RCEP in November. The meeting will finalise details related to investment, e-commerce, rules of origin, and trade remedies.

India’s Commerce and Industry Minister, Piyush Goyal, who is attending the meeting, has been critical in the past that these details remained unaddressed. He recently unsuccessfully sought concessions for India, in particular protection from possible dumping from RCEP member countries, particularly China, in exchange for signing on to the pact.

The chase for the Asean Chair holy grail

Ending with Thailand’s year as Asean Chair is the opportunity to snare what has become the ‘holy grail’ of Asean chairmanships in recent years. The closure of the long-negotiated RCEP.

Destined to be the world’s largest economic bloc once finalised, the proposed fta between the 10 Asean member states and its six FTA partners — China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand — will cover almost half of the global economy if finalised.

Of the 16 countries negotiating the the RCEP all are in agreement with the exception of India.

Domestic pressure from industry sectors such as the textile and dairy industries is causing the India government to remain a hesitant, though active, party to discussions. Earlier this week it took a policy decision, not to walk away from the trade pact.

India fears Beijing debt trap

With a combined trade deficit to RCEP nations of some $105 billion, India has long been concerned about a surge in low-quality, low-priced goods once tariffs are removed under the deal.

Right-wing Indian Hindu nationalist, paramilitary volunteer organisation, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is set to commence nationwide protests to pressure the government into not joining the RCEP. Its political and cultural organisation, Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), says the deal could see India flooded with cheap imports.

“The trade deficit with China is at an alarming level of $54 billion. It is a well-known fact that the non-tariff barriers are the main cause of denial of market access to China.

“There is nothing in RCEP to effectively discipline the non- tariff barriers (such as Mutual Recognition Agreements (MRAs)) and its exclusive focus on tariff reduction would be bringing an end to Indian manufacturing”, SJM national co-convenor Ashwani Mahajan told the hindustantimes.

Almost seven years in the negotiating, the conclusion of the RCEP would be the icing on the cake for Thailand’s year as the rotating Asean Chair. The chairman’s gavel will be symbolically handed on to 2020 Asean Chair, Vietnam, later this month at the 35th Asean Summit and Related Summits.

Whether ‘Foreign Minister Don’ was able to find one of his infamous solutions to complicated situations remains to be seen. Thailand’s MFA is not making any comment regarding his trip beyond what was contained in a media release.

There’s little doubt though that over the next couple of days Thai diplomats and trade negotiators will be scratching their heads, huddled in groups, and exploring as many avenues as possible to gain India’s nod.

Time for Thailand to capture the Asean holy grail and forever bragging rights for bringing the RCEP into existence are rapidly heading down to the wire.



Feature video ANI News




  • Jaishankar holds talks with Thai counterpart to intensify bilateral ties (WION)
  • Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Thailand to visit the Republic Of India … (MFA)
  • India, Thailand vow to enhance trade, investment, connectivity (Business Standard)



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John Le Fevre

Thailand editor at AEC News Today

John is an Australian national with more than 40 years experience as a journalist, photographer, videographer, and copy editor.

He has spent extensive periods of time working in Africa and throughout Southeast Asia, with stints in the Middle East, the USA, and England.

He has covered major world events including Operation Desert Shield/ Storm, the 1991 pillage in Zaire, the 1994 Rwanda genocide, the 1999 East Timor independence unrest, the 2004 Asian tsunami, and the 2009, 2010, and 2014 Bangkok political protests.

In 1995 he was a Walkley Award finalist, the highest awards in Australian journalism, for his coverage of the 1995 Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) Ebola outbreak.

Prior to AEC News Today he was the deputy editor and Thailand and Greater Mekong Sub-region editor for The Establishment Post, predecessor of Asean Today.

In the mid-80s and early 90s he owned JLF Promotions, the largest above and below the line marketing and PR firm servicing the high-technology industry in Australia. It was sold in 1995.

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