By Kavi Chongkittavorn
After decades of ambivalence and recalcitrance, Thailand has now embarked on a whole new security scheme - maritime security cooperation - that would allow the country to provide full surveillance and protection of its territorial waters as well as ensuring the safety of nearby international sea lanes for communications.
Last month, Thailand joined the Malacca Straits Patrol agreement along with Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore to conduct joint sea and air patrols beginning next year, in one of the most important strategic choke-points. A few days before his retirement, Thai Supreme Commander General Boonsang Niempradit signed two agreements: the Terms of Reference (TOR) and the Standard Operation Procedures (SOP).
The cooperation would enable Thailand to participate in patrolling international shipping routes in and around the Straits of Malacca. Boonsrang said that the Straits are a vital life line of much of the world trade, especially for industrialised countries like Japan and South Korea. Each year, one-third of the world's trade and half of the world's oil supply are carried through the Straits by about 95,000 vessels.
Four years ago, the three littoral states began to work together on the Malacca Straits sea patrols for safety of seaborne passages and to fight against increased piracy activities. In the 1990's the Straits were plagued by piracy. Their joint efforts have since reduced the number of piracies in high seas. Last year, there was only one incident.
Previously, Thailand has never considered itself as part and parcel of littoral states along the Straits even though the country shares maritime territorial waters and long coastal lines with Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma and India that encompasses the Bay of Bengal. Recent interests shown by extra-regional powers have encouraged the Thai navy to raise its profile. The rise of China and India and their blue-water ambitions with visible increased naval presence in the vicinity has already dominated debates on the country's new security needs.
Throughout Thai history, the Royal Thai Navy (TRN) has paid attention only to surveillance of the Andaman Sea, concerned mostly with protection of the Thai fishing fleet and dissuading the arrival of refugees from Burma and nearby Bangladesh. In the past two years, thousands of Rohinya refugees have successfully sneaked into Thailand's eastern coastal provinces through extensive human trafficking operators. Since 2005, the conflict in southern Thailand has for the first time raised the possibility of maritime support for insurgent groups.
Thai defence doctrine has always given top priority to security in the Gulf of Thailand due to its traditional strategic value, rich marine resources and overlapping claims. Due to financial and personnel constraints, it has been avoiding any regional or international commitment, especially related to patrol of international waters. The budget of the Thai armed forces has suffered from continued decline up to as high as 30 per cent since the financial crisis a decade ago. However, an overall budget increase of nearly 25 per cent this year has restored the defence budget to pre-crisis level. Recently, the Cabinet also allocated Bt110 million annually for the RTN to patrol the Straits with its Asean counterparts.
At a deeper level, the maritime security cooperation in the Straits heralds a new security mindset in Thailand's defence strategic thinking. It has now seriously incorporated maritime transnational threats that go beyond piracy or refugees to include non-traditional security such as maritime terrorism, protecting energy routes, transnational criminal trafficking operations as well as maritime conservation.
In the upcoming Defence White paper, which is expected to be released later this year, Thailand has also outlined the necessity of developing its maritime protection capabilities as well as promoting military support to civil authority in dealing with natural disasters. In August, the Royal Thai Armed Forces Strategic Student Centre held an international seminar to work out modalities for military-civilian cooperation to tackle non-traditional challenges. The impacts of the tsunami in December 2004 and Nargis cyclone in May 2008 are still fresh in the strategic thinkers' minds.
As the current chair of the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), Thailand's broader maritime security cooperation also augurs well with the ongoing ARF scheme to assist navies in member countries to work together and build up mutual confidence. Next year, the ARF will start a joint military exercise for disastrous relief and rescue operation, the first of its kind.
Since the September 11 attacks, the US has placed great importance on the safety of sea-lane communications especially in the Straits for fear that shipping containers could be targets of attacks or hijackings by terrorist groups. As one of five US allies in the Asia-Pacific, Thailand has been approached and encouraged by the US Pacific Command to promote its Regional Maritime Security Initiative in the Southeast Asian region. Together with Singapore, Thailand's move to join the Straits patrols would take care of overall US maritime security due to the convergence of interests. Indonesia and Malaysia are reluctant to have the US take part in the patrols due to their concerns over maritime sovereignty.
As part of the global anti-terrorism campaign, Thailand joined the Container Security Initiative four years ago. But the plan to sign on to the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) has been delayed for the past three years. Publicly, the Thai government has endorsed the PSI principles and has over the years been taking part in training, workshops and seminars. The situation in the three southern provinces has been cited as one of the factors contributing to the recalcitrance. The other would be the lack of Asean support - only Singapore and the Philippines are on board. Since the PSI chooses to bypass the UN processes, Thailand has been dissuaded further.
For the time being, the existing shared norms and standards of the US maritime practices and those set forth by the International Maritime Organisation have definitely encouraged Thailand to increase engagements in multilateral maritime cooperation. This will inevitably improve the skills of Thai naval officers as well as the coordination of the country's inter-agency related to maritime areas, which often lack common understanding and collaboration. In the future, Thailand would need to consider a centralised body such as a coast guard agency to undertake a more comprehensive maritime security.