Dr. Kantathi Suphamongkhon served as Foreign Minister of Thailand during the administration of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from March 11, 2005, until the military coup d’etat on Sept. 19, 2006. He is currently Senior Fellow at the Burkle Center for International Relations at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) where he also teaches law and diplomacy. Here he is interviewed by Asean Affairs Managing Editor David Swartzentruber.
Q: What were your initiatives as Foreign Minister?A: I think the big picture is I wanted Thai foreign policy to help Thailand undergo globalization. So, what I did was to expand outreach globally. The first part is to enhance our relations with our neighbors, Asean; enhance our relations with our traditional partners, the United States, Japan, the European Union, and also build the new relationships, especially China and India. In India we really tried to build that relationship because India has been somewhat distant from us.
In past years during the Cold War, India had signaled that they want to be involved with our region-Look East and we have to look west. Apart from that, Thais need to be global and really enhance relations with Latin America, the Middle East as well as Eastern Europe. Those were the new relations we built although we have had diplomatic relations with those countries for a while, we put energy into the relations.
In fact, when I was growing up, I grew up outside Thailand. My father was in the foreign service. He was the first Thai ambassador to Australia. I grew up in Australia from 8 months old until I was 7 years old and then spent 4 or 5 years in Thailand and after that went to the Federal Republic of Germany where my father was ambassador and then went to the UK. I have been to the US by myself. It was interesting during those years, I would read senior officials reports and I remember a recurring theme- Thailand is a small country. Thailand should not have real global initiatives. We should only look at the neighborhood.
The message that kept on being reinforced was the fact that Thailand should stay on the sidelines. We are not an actor in the world because we are small.
I always felt uncomfortable hearing that because is that really helpful? Is it good to look at Thailand that way? And then, of course, when I looked at the map and when I looked at statistics and figures, it turned out that Thailand is the same size as France.
France was at that time, the largest country in Europe. Now Germany is the largest country. The population of Thailand and France are about the same. Natural resources, Thailand has more and I thought to myself, Thailand is definitely not a gigantic country like the US, but we are not small. Maybe we can contribute and become more active in a constructive way in the world.
The location has a multiplier effect and so I thought Thailand has the potential to do much more good and that was a part of my policy, to enhance our role in foreign affairs. And I feel that once that role has been enhanced, we can protect our interests much better because we have become a major player rather than being on the sidelines. And so what I did, I focused a lot of attention on Asean diplomacy. I was involved in the formulation of the East Asia Summit and involved in the various activities of the Asean Regional Forum and the Asian architecture. The goal was to build a regional architecture that would have a structure for us to engage major powers.
With this structure we have invited major powers to come in and we use the structure to enhance the relationship, that’s a very important aspect.
The other thing that I did was to contribute to international situations. Situations that may be a bit farther away from home but are globally very important and Thailand has never done that before.
I tried to contribute to the negotiations on the Korean Peninsula, the Iran situation and so I thought it would be good to be more active in those areas and so we contributed.
For example, when there were communications with the US Secretary of State from the North Koreans, we were able to take a part and so it became easier to protect our bilateral interests when it became necessary to strengthen US-Thai relations, US-Chinese relations or whatever.
Q: Sort of leveraging?
A:It’s not really leveraging. But when you contribute to global issues, then you are seen as a player that people will listen to you more, especially, when it comes to issues that are important to Thailand. When you are considered part of the group that contributes to solving the world’s problems and that when you have your own problems, your colleagues will understand you more and will be willing to help, rather than being an outsider, no one thinks of you.
For example, we had an Asean meeting with the US in New York and I received a message from the US Secretary of State, that after the Asean meeting we want to stay on and discuss North Korea and other issues. That, in itself, enhances Thailand’s image and importance. When it came to the fact that we did not want to do something the US wanted us to do, we could explain to them and they would understand it. It’s an approach that I felt was important for Thailand, especially in the era of globalization.
Q: Even Vietnam welcomed them over the South China Sea issue?
A:During the Bush administration I was able to build a good relationship with Secretary Rice but the US was preoccupied with only one or two issues in the Middle East. So I welcomed the renewed interest. I think it is very significant that Secretary Clinton traveled on her very first trip abroad to Asia. Usually a secretary of state goes to Europe on the very first trip. She made it very important to stop at the Asean headquarters that was very important.
The renewed interest was very important.
When the US was preoccupied with other problems such as Iraq, people in the region got used to not having US involvement.
So the Thai influence was enhanced.
Now with the US re-engagement I think it is good and the US can play a very positive role. We can have good relations with China, good relations with the US and when the US thinks about its relationship with China, I think it is important for the US not to think of its relations only bilaterally in a narrow perspective, but US-China relations also cover China’s relations with other countries. By enhancing US relations with us in Southeast Asia, the US may be enhancing its ability to have a positive relationship with China.
With this engagement that the US has, I feel that it has been solidified with the US even further with the US joining the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. When the US signed the treaty last year, I thought that was another major milestone that led to the US entry into the East Asian Summit this year. For the first time this year the US will be a participant in the East Asian Summit..................