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The Foreign Policy Strategy of a Regional Middle Power - Thailand and Germany

od Arbeitskreis Junge Außenpolitik, Dr. Patrick Keller
Thailand is currently in a process of political transformation, in which the orientation is more towards China than towards Europe. Although of its domestic problems, Thailand aims for an active foreign policy and it plays a constructivist role in the region’s conflicts. Therefore it is an important partner in the region to Germany and the European Union. In early September 2016, five members of the KAS Working Group of Young Foreign Policy Experts visited Bangkok upon invitation by KAS Thailand.

  • Thai conference participants largely disagreed with the description of Germany as a “middle power” as suggested by the conference program. Instead, they perceived Germany as a “central power” in Europe or even a “great power”.

  • Thailand is currently in a process of political transformation, in which the orientation is more towards China than towards Europe.

  • Although of its domestic problems, Thailand aims for an active foreign policy and it plays a constructivist role in the region’s conflicts. Therefore it is an important partner in the region to Germany and the European Union.

  • Thailand is likely to seek closer ties with China due to its undeniable power position in the region. On the same time, they aim to keep the traditionally strong ties with Washington.

In early September 2016, five members of the KAS Working Group of Young Foreign Policy Experts visited Bangkok upon invitation by KAS Thailand. They conducted a number of political briefings with experts and politicians from Thailand and held a public conference in co-operation with Chulalongkorn University's ASEAN Studies Center. This report summarizes that conference on Germany's and Thailand's respective foreign policy.

Following the opening remarks by Asst. Prof. Dr. Piti Srisangnam, (Director of Academic Af-fairs, ASEAN Studies Center), Mr. Michael Winzer (Konrad Adenauer Foundation, Bangkok) and Dr. Patrick Keller (Konrad Adenauer Foundation, Berlin), the first part of the one-day conference dealt with “domestic influences on international politics”.

In his lecture on “the impact of Thailand’s national politics beyond its borders”, Associate Professor Panitan Wattanayagorn from the Department of International Relations, Chulalongkorn University Bangkok, discussed the impact of the recent military coup on Thai-land’s foreign policy. Wattanayagorn argued that recent developments in Thailand’s domes-tic policies have not had a lasting impact on Bangkok’s foreign policy conduct. Thailand’s foreign policy outlook remains fundamentally shaped by the competition between the US and China in the region. After decades of close US-Thai cooperation, Thailand’s government has strengthened relations with China in recent years. This change in outlook did not follow changing ideological preferences by Thai governments. Instead, China’s economic power in the region has become a “fact of life” that policy makers can hardly ignore. In addition, ac-cording to Wattanayagorn, the US has “lost interest” in sustainably supporting Thailand as a strategic partner in the region. Regardless of this, Thailand is likely to continue its constructive role as a regional actor interested in peaceful conflict settlement and long-term economic development and stability.

In his lecture on the “Drivers of German Foreign Policy”, Dr. Frank Sauer, Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Bundeswehr University Munich, focused on the economic and political interests and values that determine Germany’s outlook on the world. Sauer suggested that German priorities in the foreign policy sphere can be summarized by three R’s – “respect, restraint, and responsibility”. For Sauer, “respect” is a key ingredient of German foreign poli-cy due to Germany’s status as a geographical “middle power”. The combination of international status and geography gave rise to the peculiar German foreign policy of “in-betweenness” during the Cold War. As a consequence thereof, multilateralism became the default mode of German foreign policy. Only after a Constitutional Court ruling in the early 1990s did the German armed forces receive green light for conducting “out of area” operations. Through this constitutional change, the participation of the German armed forces personnel in multilateral military engagements increased sharply and military restraint decreased (for instances in the Balkans). For Sauer, the old German foreign policy, concerned mainly with itself, dealing with only a narrow range of issues and countries, has already given way to the new foreign policy of the Berlin republic, one that tries to take living up to Germany’s new, increased responsibilities seriously. Yet, what “taking on more responsibility” means and will mean for German foreign policy in the years to come is still not clearly defined and remains a constant bone of contention. However, Sauer believes that German foreign policy will be able to square the circle and manage to take on more responsibility without ditching the other two “Rs” – respect and restraint. Sauer passionately stressed that especially the culture of military restraint is worth keeping because all the recent examples of practicing less restraint are cautionary tales, not examples to follow: “When German interests are not touched directly, I think we should not engage directly. It’s as simple as that.”

The second part of the conference, titled “regional leadership ambitions”, was kicked off with a lecture by Asst. Prof. Dr. Piti Srisangnam’s (Director of Academic Affairs, ASEAN Stud-ies Center), taking a closer look at Thailand’s role in its neighborhood and ASEAN as well as the economic development of the Mekong River subregion. First he gave a brief historic overview over the development of ASEAN with a particular focus on Thailand’s involvement regarding key events and turning points. He also referred to Thailand’s recent efforts to-wards “de-pillarization” and “connectivity” in ASEAN, that is, a closer linkage between the three pillars of economy, security and culture. Then, Dr. Piti sketched the current tug war between major powers in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region – from China’s plans for Southeast-Asia as its gateway to the rest of the world to the USA’s Lower Mekong Initiative as an attempt to slow down the spread of Chinese influence in the region and Japan’s attempt to establish trade links to India. The divergent interests of Mekong River riparian states regarding irrigation, electricity production or water use for manufacturing (derived, inter alia, from an upstream or downstream position on the map) is complicating the process of unlocking the immense economic potential of the region as a whole. The key to seizing the economic opportunities, Dr. Piti concluded, will be overcoming the “trust crisis”.

In her comment, Franziska Stahl (Political Analyst and Adviser EUCAP Sahel Mali) focused on the key finding of Prof. Srisangnam’s presentation that the ASEAN region has lost its equilibrium (due to environmental and economic challenges as well as emerging threats such as natural disasters, climate change, trafficking, organized crime, terrorism). As a result, while the ASEAN region is highly integrated, the differences between member states are growing. Drawing on a comparison with the EU, Stahl argued that a reform of existing institutions or a focus on new, narrower regional cooperation mechanisms is needed to counter centrifugal powers. Whilst regional organizations have been very much à la mode in the post WWII era (as a mechanism to overcome regional conflicts, balance regional stability, promote economic growth, diffuse norms, etc.), they are increasingly questioned as their sphere of influence has grown (both in terms of policies, institutions and geographically). Both Germany and Thailand have in the past been strong promoters of regional integration. As strong middle powers they have both benefited significantly from the membership in their respective regional organizations (EU and ASEAN) and supported their broadening and widening. Stahl suggested infrastructure projects enhancing living standards and providing jobs as a key avenue for regional economic development. Re-focusing on setting the broad framework for regional cooperation would allow subregional cooperation to flourish. Stahl pointed to the Lower Mekong Initiative as one such example for sub-regional cooperation.

Part II of the conference featured a presentation by Anna-Lena Kirch (Research Assistant, German Marshall Fund of the United States), addressing Germany’s role in the EU. In her presentation, she identified key priorities of German foreign policy and highlighted Germany’s marked interest in upholding the liberal international order. Conscious of its past, German foreign policy is characterized by multilateralism as Germany has taken on leadership as driving force in the EU, promoting regional integration internally and striving for joint economic and security policies externally. However, Germany – much like other European countries – is currently experiencing growing internal debate and a rise of populism, particularly in response to the role Germany plays in the migration crisis. In view of an upsurge of populism across EU member states, the EU is facing a rising threat of disintegration. The EU’s struggle to agree on a common solution to the migration crisis and the UK’s recent vote to leave the EU are only two manifestations of this dynamic. In this context, increasing opposition by Eastern European member states and critique even by traditional partners of German leadership in key questions of EU policy (migration, financial crisis) may lead to a recalibration of Germany’s position in the EU.

In her comment, Assistant Prof. Dr. Natthanan Kunnamas (Jean Monnet Chair) of Chulalongkorn University pointed to the parallels of the challenges that the EU and ASEAN are currently facing, notably the increasing (economic) inequality amongst member states, diverging national interests and citizens’ decreasing trust in regional institutions and the benefits of regional integration. The ensuing discussion focused on Brexit and possible implications for Germany as reluctant lead nation within the EU. The panelists agreed that the challenge for Germany and the EU more generally consisted in getting from the current crisis mode to a steering mode, allowing for coherent planning and policy decisions. In the longer term this could contribute to rebuilding trust in existing institutions and enhancing social cohesion.

Part III of the conference, titled “global contests”, shifted the focus from the domestic and regional level to global dynamics, putting the notion of Thailand as “a middle power in the middle of a power struggle” between the US and China up to discussion. Alessandro Scheffler Corvaja (George C. Marshall Center for Security Studies) started the discussion by pointing at the limited room for manoeuvre that middle powers enjoy on the chess board of great powers. When outlining the likely trajectory for future power struggle in South-East Asia – and with regard to the South China Sea conflict in particular – Scheffler Corvaja predicted the geostrategic competition between the US and China to become even more polarized going forward, putting Thailand in a difficult position. He elaborated that Thai-US relations have been complicated lately even though Thailand formally is one of the US’ major allies in the region. At the same time, Thai cooperation with China has increasingly deepened on different levels, which has compromised the Thai self-understanding of balancing between the great powers in its region.

The second speaker, Professor Surichai Wungaeo (Director of the Center for Peace and Con-flict Studies, Chulalongkorn University), started his presentation by contesting the character-ization of Thailand as a middle power. He warned about focusing too strictly on the territorial dimension of power struggles in South East Asia and suggested to also take soft power contexts into consideration. For Germany, both discussants saw only limited leverage with regard to the power struggle between China and the US. However, Prof. Wungaeo suggested that Germany could contribute to fostering trustworthy relations in the region and globally by promoting development policy, democratic values and new forms of public diplomacy.

Part III continued with the day’s final panel, focusing on Germany’s approach to new and emerging powers. Dr. Lars C. Colschen (Geschwister-Scholl-

Institut, Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich) provided an overview of the structural drivers behind German foreign policy and how they are shaping Berlin´s behavior towards emerging great powers.

In his contribution, Dr. Ingmar Zielke focused on how Germany is using a non-traditional understanding of security and cooperation with middle powers in distant regions. He emphasized that Germany’s policies beyond Europe focus on long-term drivers of stability such as environmental protection and health. For this purpose, Germany tries to cooperate with regional “Gestaltungsmächte”, which rather than just by power are defined by their connectedness; they can thus also simply be middle powers that are well connected within their region. Germany´s approach to emerging powers is hereby always closely intertwined with the EU approach, under whose guise this policy is mostly played out (with the notable exception of China). For Zielke, the most important limit to German and European global ambitions is the widely held feeling that it lacks the power to influence world affairs. While the EU perceives of itself as a “normative power”, this perception is often not shared by emerging powers, who deem it neither normative nor a power. Europe´s negative trajectory, its ineffective foreign policy and the resulting low regard with which it is held by many emerging powers mean that neither the European Union nor Germany are well suited for fostering deeper regional cooperation in Asia, nor should or can the two actors get involved in more immediate security challenges in Asia. If they accept these limits, both Germany and the EU can positively impact other regions and emerging powers. For this purpose, they should foster relations with regional “Gestaltungsmächte” such as Thailand: Particularly recommendable in this regard are Trilateral Cooperation (TriCo) with Thailand as an “anchor country” as well as Partnerships for Sustainable Development. Ultimately, Dr. Zielke reminded the audience that the EU and Germany face plenty of challenges at home, which will prevent both from focusing more thoroughly on global issues and emerging powers.

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