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Why Thailand is boosting ties with Russia and China

Criticized by the West, Thailand's ruling junta seems to be turning eastward for political and economic support, as Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev's recent visit to the country shows, says analyst Zachary Abuza.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is on two-day visit to Thailand, the first by a Russian PM in 25 years aimed at boosting trade and tourism and strengthening bilateral ties. During the trip, which began on April 7, Medvedev and his Thai counterpart General Prayuth Chan-ocha have signed bilateral agreements to combat drug trafficking, increase investment and develop the Thai energy sector. The goal is to double bilateral trade to $10 billion by 2016.

Medvedev's trip comes just a week after Thailand's ruling military junta, known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), was criticized by the United Nations, rights groups and some Western countries for lifting martial law only to replace it with sweeping security powers for the military.

Thailand has been under the rule of a junta ever since a military coup last May. PM Prayuth, the man behind the coup, has argued that the military takeover was necessary to avoid further bloodshed following months of political turmoil in the country pitting anti-government demonstrators against supporters of the administration of former PM Yingluck Shinawatra.

In a DW interview, Zachary Abuza, an independent researcher on Southeast Asian security, talks about how the reluctance of some Western countries to do business with the military government is prompting Bangkok to look eastwards, and how both Russia and China are benefiting from this change in tack.

Thailand Koh Phanghan Anantara Rasananda Resort

Abuza: 'Thailand wants to see Russian tourism increase to make up for the decline in Western tourists'

DW: Why did the military junta seem to be keen on this visit by Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev?

The visit was larger on symbolism than on substance. Thailand is always looking to expand international trade and tourism, but the real goal for the NCPO is international legitimacy, as it has become even more isolated from the West following its replacement of martial law with rule under Article 44, which gives completely unaccountable power to the junta.

PM Prayuth Chan-ocha, who has bristled at Western "interference" and lack of understanding of Thailand's political system, certainly sees Russia as a political model; with its restrictions on the media, civil-society, and strongman rule. He certainly embraces Russian President Vladimir Putin's assertion that there is a third way to development based on a strong state.

What were the key issues on the agenda?

Thailand and Russia announced that they aim to increase their annual bilateral trade in 2016 to $10 billion. Bilateral trade was only $4.7 billion in 2013, according to UN data. The balance of trade clearly favors Russia, whose $3.5 billion in exports dwarf their $1.2 billion in imports from Thailand.

The Thais would also like to find new markets for rubber, rice, food, and fisheries. They have spoken in generalities about Russian investment in the energy sector. Russian tourism, which had been rising steadily in the past decade, fell by 8.6 percent to 1.7 million in 2014 with the devaluation of the ruble, caused by economic sanctions following the intervention and annexation of Crimea.

Nationaler Reformrat in Bangkok, Thailand 21.10.201

Thailand's military government seeks 'international legitimacy' from Medvedev's visit, says Abuza

This has hurt Thailand's tourism industry, already reeling from the May 2014 coup, political instability and the murder of two British tourists. Clearly, the Thai government wants to see Russian tourism - seven percent of the total - increase to make up for the decline in Western tourists.

In all, five separate trade and investment, education, counter-narcotics, and cultural agreements were set to be signed during Medvedev's visit.

Worried about the suspension of democracy and curtailment of some human rights, the US and other Western countries have somewhat distanced themselves from the junta. Is Bangkok now increasingly turning to Russia and China for support?

While there is little history between the two countries, ties are growing. This is being driven largely by Thailand's recent isolation and the appeal that Russia offers as an alternative to liberal democracy. Bangkok is very clearly signaling to Washington, its treaty ally, that it has alternatives.

In the case of China, bilateral military ties are also growing. Thailand's defense minister is holding his third meeting with his Chinese counterpart since the fall, at a time when senior-level engagement with the US is on ice.