Eastern irritation

Managing the neighbourhood has been a big challenge for prime ministers, Narendra Modi included. Modi has taken the rough with the smooth in India’s relations with major neighbours like China, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

He has been fortunate to have an India-friendly government in Bangladesh, with which he has built much trust and cooperation. Elections in Sri Lanka and the Maldives have turned the tide, while an informal summit with President Xi Jinping has halted the plummeting relationship with China. But Nepal continues to be a problem, as Prime Minister K.P. Oli and fellow communists have a strong grievance against New Delhi. Bhutan, despite the Doklam crisis, has remained very friendly, while Myanmar has reached out to India through its democratic transformation. On the other hand, relations with Pakistan have been at the nadir for the past two years.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

But, what has been surprising is the sudden cooling off in the relations with Thailand, India’s second sea neighbour (after Sri Lanka). Prime ministers have been giving special attention to Thailand, which is ruled by a combination of monarchy, democracy and military. Modi himself had made the country one of the pivots of his east Asia policy. He had made the special gesture of making a stopover in Bangkok two years ago to pay homage to Thailand’s departed king Bhumibol Adulyadej. It was hailed as a rare gesture, and showed the importance India had given to the southeast Asian nation, with which it shares the Andaman Sea.

India has been talking to Thailand about the free-trade agreement with the powerful economic bloc of 10 southeast Asian nations (ASEAN). The Thai prime minister was one of the guests at the Republic Day parade this year, along with other ASEAN leaders. Thailand has for long been a safe haven for leaders of separatist groups in India’s northeast. Indian diplomats and security experts have been travelling to Bangkok and other Thai cities to hold talks with these groups. Even national security advisers of India and Pakistan had chosen Bangkok as the neutral venue for hush-hush talks last year.

Still, there have been instances in recent times that revealed thorns in the relationship. India had grandly announced that Thailand would take part in the joint military exercise with member countries of BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) in Pune. Thailand, however, said it was not part of the exercise, as it did not want to antagonise its other powerful neighbour, China.

India’s external affairs ministry has been worried that Beijing’s hold on Thailand has been growing. Then came the Thai ambassador’s public complaint that the Union government was preventing him and Thai companies from distributing relief material to the victims of the Kerala floods. An angry South Block conveyed to the ambassador that his comments were improper.

India is also annoyed that Thailand has not warmed up to the Modi government’s plan to project BIMSTEC (comprising Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand) as a club to counter the failed SAARC (which includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, the Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka), so that Pakistan is isolated in the region.

Thailand, for its part, also cannot afford to rub India the wrong way, as its economy gets a big boost from planeloads of incoming Indian tourists and growing exports to India. The two littoral neighbours need a big hug to erase the bitter memories of the past few months. There is a lot at stake for both the countries—in terms of economy and internal security issues, apart from the age-old cultural bonds.