Stepping off the plane after a six-hour flight from South Korea we found ourselves joining hundreds of passengers making our way towards the queues at immigration control at Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok.
The same hustle and bustle greeted us once we were out of the airport, where the air was hot and humid and the streets and outdoor markets crowded.
There was plenty going on: our visit took place just days after the APEC Trade Ministers Meeting in Bangkok; Thailand signing up as a founding member of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) alongside New Zealand and eleven other countries. And just the weekend prior, independent opposition supporter Chadchart Sittipunt was elected as the new governor in Bangkok – all setting an upbeat feel for our programme of visits around town.
Over the course of 24 hours, we managed to cover off an impressive range of topics about the Land of Smiles, with a range of local commentators, journalists, and foreign policy researchers to discuss what was happening in and across the region – as well as what the implications might be for us in New Zealand.
Speaking to our Thai friends, we sensed some of that optimism.
We heard how the economy was looking pretty good relative to the rest of the region. Manufacturing comprises 60 percent of GDP, and exports are bouncing back strongly, particularly in food production. Rice exports are up, attributed to grain shortages due to the conflict in Ukraine.
Of course, there are still challenges ahead. Tourism (formerly 20 percent of GDP and a buffer/band-aid to distract from other economic challenges) was hit very hard by COVID; things will likely be tough for the tourism industry until Chinese tourists return – and there were no signs of that happening any time soon.
Moreover, Thailand is still very much stuck in a “middle-income trap” – where wages have become too high to compete against other low-wage, low-income nations, while lacking the necessary talent and innovation to advance alongside high-income countries.
The modern skyscrapers of Bangkok conceal the underlying issues that are hampering Thailand's economy (Photo shows the leafy US Ambassador's official residence surrounded by downtown skyscrapers)
We heard about industries where outside expertise is desperately needed in order to scale up – which often means looking to the Japanese for help. It is not hard to see that Japanese investment is very much hard-wired into the Thai system, both in terms of cultural affinity and economic leverage.
We heard how an estimated 55 percent of industrial output has a Japanese connection. Our Thai friends commented they were "too heavily reliant on value chains with too many suppliers” – Toyota alone had 10,000 Thai sub-contractors.
All that sunk investment meant the cost of moving was too high, they believed. But the EV car industry was one example of a game changing very quickly: despite Thailand being a major manufacturer and assembler of motor vehicles in the region, companies like Tesla were looking to Indonesia for construction given the local availability of raw materials.
If it isn't better prepared to adapt and think strategically, could Thailand end up losing out to its neighbours; or worse yet, find itself stuck in the trap forever?
For the last fifteen years, we've heard how Thailand has been “muddling through”. And over that time, we heard various laments of lost opportunity, a lack of forward thinking and coherency.
Around town there were a mix of views about Bangkok’s new governor. Some hold high hopes for change – the potential of what an elected civilian leader could do; others suggested the landslide result shouldn’t be extrapolated to the national elections coming up late 2022/early 2023 – Chadchart, who ran an as an independent to draw neutral bipartisan support, was not a candidate for either opposition party, Pheu Thai or Move Forward. Both parties share a similar voter base, unless they forge an alliance the opposition could actually find itself in a weaker position against the ruling parties.
Thailand’s political landscape has long been characterised by debate over the respective roles of government, the monarchy, and the military, and this continues to be the case. Youth-led street protests in 2020 and 2021 were unprecedented in their public calls for reform of the monarchy. The protests have now abated, but the underlying questions remain.
Decoration's adorning a pavement prior to the Thai Queen's birthday on 3 June
How might long-awaited general elections later this year/early 2023 play out? How might these outcomes impact Thailand’s place in the international community? A common characterisation of Thai diplomacy is “bamboo bending with the wind” – we were told this saying should be interpreted in terms of the plant’s strength and resilience to bend before the wind, and not with it – watching and adjusting according to its own interests.
While this approach may have served Bangkok well for navigating a raft of geo-political tensions across the region, some suggested it could prompt passive tendencies that negatively impacted innovation and confidence. Perhaps the task now for Thailand is to reveal fresh and promising new shoots that allow the country to pave its own way onwards and upwards. As a wise man once said about Bangkok - the world’s your oyster.
Dr James To, Asia New Zealand Foundation senior adviser, Research and Engagement
Dr James To has an academic background in Asian languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese), political science, and commerce. He has lectured in Northeast Asian foreign policy, and is an active researcher of the overseas Chinese diaspora.