A Tale of two cities

As border settings relax and international travel resumes following more than two years of lockdowns and quarantines, the Asia New Zealand Foundation is getting back to Asia through its Track II engagement programme. In this article, the Foundation's Dr James To reflects on reconnecting with stakeholders and friends of the Foundation on his recent visit to Seoul and Bangkok with executive director Simon Draper.
A group of six people including the foundation's executive director Simon Draper posing for a photo against a wall

Simon and James with members of the Kiwi community in Seoul: L>R: Jared Lynskey (Chair, Kiwi Alumni), David Park (Secretary, Kiwi Chamber), Tony Garett (Chair, Kiwi Chamber), Kina Kunz (doctoral candidate from Otago University).

While Zoom has its place, there is nothing quite like connecting in person and the sensory experience of a real face-to-face meeting – and enjoying free and frank conversations that are otherwise challenging in front of computer screens.

The first port of call of our two-country trip (you can read about the Thailand leg below) was South Korea - one of the only countries in North Asia that no longer requires isolation upon arrival and is welcoming visa-waiver visitors again.

The 40-minute road trip from the airport to our hotel along gleaming new bridges and multi-lane highways revealed South Korea has obviously not been resting on its laurels during the pandemic. There was plenty of dynamism in the air promising a bright and exciting future ahead. 

Watch a slideshow of images taken on the streets of Seoul by the Foundation's James To

We had three days of calls around town – catching up with our think tank partner the Asan Institute for Policy Studies; connecting with commentators, academics, and media; and meeting with representatives from the film/art/cultural sectors, as well as members of the Kiwi community in Seoul. The idea was to hear a broad spectrum of perspectives about what's happening in South Korea, and throughout the region – and what it might mean for us in New Zealand.

There was plenty to talk about: Joe Biden was in town that weekend, Korea had signed up to the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, and North Korea was in the midst of testing missiles – all under the watchful eye of new South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who had recently announced at his inauguration some very positive messaging about South Korea’s ambition to play a bigger role in international affairs and become a “global pivotal state.”

For many years the Foundation, in the course of our Track II dialogues, has been encouraging the ROK how it might give back to the international system after benefitting from it for so long. Yoon’s words informed a refreshing roadmap ahead.

At the same time, our conversations showed that some things didn’t change, in particular the Korean world view, psyche and national interests, which remain narrow and firmly focused on the DPRK, the US, Japan and China.

This is the natural instinct and muscle memory of a nation that was long known, and for good reason, as the Hermit Kingdom. It was no surprise then to hear about the pragmatism around Seoul’s international relations and foreign policy – working quickly to build up concrete architecture with Washington to guarantee security and protection, yet not antagonise Beijing. This was not so much a balancing or hedging act, but simply an effort to get along together. On Japan, despite a warming relationship, there were some reservations of how far regional cooperation might go (especially along military lines) – historical differences had yet to be fully resolved.

Issues beyond this scope (such as Taiwan or the South China Sea) were not considered a priority – our Korean friends remarked they already had their hands full with the DPRK. Domestic opinion is also a significant factor in how the Yoon administration might proceed on the big challenges ahead. Re-unification wasn’t even raised as a topic of conversation during our three days in Seoul – something that seems to have been largely dismissed in the public narrative altogether.

The coming months will tell how Yoon’s call to action will come to pass – with key regional events that will undoubtedly impact Korea’s trajectory: a seventh nuclear test in Punggye-ri, the US mid-term elections, and what comes out of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing later this year. The main challenge for Yoon is how he will assert Korea’s place on the international stage – hopefully, as the old Korean adage goes, not as a ‘shrimp among whales’ but ‘a dragon rising up from a small stream’.

Thailand – Bamboo Garden or Middle-Income Trap?

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.

Watch a slideshow of images James took on the streets of Bangkok during his visit

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.

A photo of the skyline of Bangkok showing modern skyscrapers and forest

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.


A decorative display of tinsel adorns a large photo of the King of Thailand

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.