Thailand: Thaksin Visits Australia

2002

Cavan Hogue

Prime Minister Thaksin will visit Australia in late May. Although he has been here before, this will be his first visit as Prime Minister.

Thailand and Australia have always had a sound understanding, without the ups and downs of some of their other relationships. Defence co-operation remains very strong and the political relationship has generally been good. Trade is not bad but investment levels are lower than they might be. The relatively low public exposure does not reflect the strength of the government relationship. The Australian media tend to focus on the Thai sex trade and Australians in jail while the Thai media concentrate on Australian paedophiles and drug pushers.

The Keating and Chuan governments had a common interest in the promotion of human rights and democracy. While the Chuan Government also got along reasonably well with the Howard Government, both the Howard and Thaksin Governments have moved away from the promotion of human rights as a priority and taken a harder line based on the protection of borders and of national interests. Unlike Australia, Thailand has a real border and refugee problem.

Prime Minister Thaksin, who likes to talk of himself as the nation's CEO, has brought a very strong business focus to Thai foreign policy. Thai ambassadors are instructed to see the promotion of trade as their primary mission and they too, in their way, are CEOs of their embassies. This view is consistent with the emphasis which recent Australian Governments have put on trade and especially with the views of the current Australian Government.

The Thaksin visit is likely to focus on trade and particularly on the proposed Free Trade Agreement. Although the idea was already around well before Foreign Minister Surakiart’s visit to Australia in July 2001, agreement was reached then to hold substantive official talks aimed at the preparation of a Joint Scoping Study on a Free Trade Agreement. There are potential synergies in technology transfer and other areas of complementarity. There are also long-standing controversies over Australian quarantine and anti-dumping barriers on the one hand, and Thai import restrictions on the other.

The Thaksin visit is unlikely to solve all these problems but significant movement towards a Free Trade Agreement would be a good outcome. Prime Minister Thaksin could face Australian press criticism over his media policies but, politically, the visit should be positive.

WATCHPOINT: Prime Minister Thaksin will visit Australia in late May. Although he has been here before, this will be his first visit as Prime Minister.

 

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