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19 June


ASEAN Summit - a chance for Thailand to return to the world stage

Prayuth Chan-ocha listed infrastructure and connectivity as key to "strengthening Asean”

Photo: Reuters

/NOVOSTIVL/ The pressure is on Thailand’s coup leader turned prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to launch the Southeast Asian country back onto the world stage and mediate some especially thorny issues at the Asean Summit in Bangkok this weekend. This article appeared in the South China Morning Post.

The two-day summit will be Prayuth’s first time leading the bloc since he assumed office after the 2014 military coup. Leaders from all 10 member states (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore, which held the chairmanship last year) will descend on the capital for what Prayuth hopes will be a meeting of "advancing partnerships" and creating a "seamless Asean".

"Thailand has outlined an ambitious agenda for its Asean chairmanship, including initiatives on sustainability and the digital economy," said Brian Harding, deputy director and fellow of the Southeast Asia Programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. "While the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is of course heavily focused on this agenda, it’s clear that Prime Minister Prayuth is naturally more focused on domestic politics and staging a summit that marks a full return for Thailand to the international stage".

Thailand previously hosted the Asean Summit in 2009, when redshirt protesters stormed the conference venue in the resort town of Pattaya to protest against then prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, forcing the summit to be aborted. Today, Thai politics has seemingly calmed with Prayuth’s ascendancy.

Paul Chambers, an international relations academic at Thailand’s Naresuan University, said Prayuth’s new-found legitimacy would put him in the spotlight on the world stage, as international pressure declines for Thailand to return to democracy.

Accepting the role of chairman at the end of the 33rd Asean Summit in Singapore last November, Prayuth listed infrastructure and connectivity as key to "strengthening Asean".

This connectivity, undoubtedly, will go hand in hand with China’s global infrastructure drive, the Belt and Road Initiative. Prayuth met Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Belt and Road Forum in April and the former general vowed Thailand would continue to support and participate in the initiative and, as Asean chair, promote Asean-China relations.

"The idea of pushing connectivity also aligns with his desire to bolster infrastructure in Thailand, especially the Eastern Economic Corridor project," said Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The Eastern Economic Corridor, the junta government’s flagship foreign investment project, is still in its early stages, but Thai officials have worked hard to court mainland investors to move their production bases there.

Thailand this week pledged $200 million for the newly set-up ACMECS fund, a development initiative between Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam aimed at complementing or balancing two China-related initiatives - the belt and road and the Greater Mekong Sub-regional Economic Cooperation.

It has also pledged to complete negotiations on the RCEP, Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a free-trade pact between Asean and India, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, by the end of the year.