New Normal of Indonesia-Thailand Relations by Ambassador Songphol Sukchan

New Normal of Indonesia-Thailand Relations.

(as published in the Jakarta Post, dated 27 February 2020)




Celebrating the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations this year will be more meaningful if Thailand and Indonesia can establish their new normal of relations at this time of turbulence. Friendship between Thailand and Indonesia has existed since 1871 when King Chulalongkorn (King Rama V) of Thailand made his first visit to Java followed by another two visits to the island.


The bronze elephant statue in front of the National Museum in Jakarta, a gift from King Chulalongkorn, and his inscription at Curug Dago waterfall in Bandung, West Java, represent this historical tie of friendship. It was on March 7, 1950, when the two countries established formal diplomatic relations.


Similarities of hearts and minds of Thais and Indonesians have bonded us together since then.


Both nations have been enjoying a luxury of “zero wound and conflict” during our 149 years of relations. We were side by side in difficult times. Indonesia shipped oil to Thailand during the oil crisis in 1970 and supported Thailand during the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Thailand supported Indonesia and dispatched troops for peacekeeping operations in East Timor in 1999. Thailand played a constructive role in the peace-making process in Aceh and its development afterward.


At present, when uncertainties spread across the world, we cannot take for granted our cordial and nonviolent relations. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo made an interesting speech at the Bank of Indonesia meeting last December, citing the movie Cast Away. He cited the ability to find new resources to support survival as the thing that allowed Tom Hank’s character to survive on the island.


Trade spats between the United States and China have already affected us. COVID-19 is now hurting 26 countries across the world. The effects land hard on the economies that have strong linkages with China, such as those in Southeast Asia.


However, COVID-19 can be turned into an opportunity. Individual countries are prone to over linkages and to be affected by pandemics, economic volatility, security and political influence. Those economies need to take the opportunity to rethink if their economies rely too much on China or any single country or if their economies are resilient enough to function independently. Thailand and Indonesia are no exception. China sends the most tourists to Thailand globally (27% of 39 million foreign tourists are Chinese). Indonesia imports 26% of its goods from China and 16% of its exports go to China, its biggest trading partner.


Thailand and Indonesia are the two largest economies in ASEAN, whose combined gross domestic product accounts for over 50% of ASEAN. We therefore need to join forces and operationalize our development and competitiveness by strengthening our economies.


Thailand has worked with Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, which are the fastest growing economies of mainland ASEAN, to formulate the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy Development Master Plan — pooling our resources in creating competitiveness in trade, investment and connectivity across the region. The Master Plan’s fund of US$500 million has been set up to support development and infrastructure connectivity projects.


Indonesia is progressing well as the biggest Muslim-majority country in the world and the largest archipelago nation, with an abundance of resources. Indonesia is forecast to be the fifth-largest economy globally by 2045.


Indonesia and Thailand can tap into each other’s economic potential to reap advantages and connect the seas with mainland Southeast Asia. We should connect more and rethink our strategic partnerships by creating a new normal of relationships. Both will need utilization of our collective strengths in areas that will be mutually beneficial for our future economic developments.


Thailand’s strength includes manufacturing, agro-industry, hospitality and tourism, meetings, conventions and exhibitions, sustainable development and the circular economy. Indonesia is at its best when looking at the digital economy, agriculture, creative economy, energy and diverse resources.


While this bilateral new normal of relations develops, we should expand our collective strength with other ASEAN members. ASEAN is the fifth-largest world economy and the third-largest economy in Asia, with a collective population of 644 million across the 10 country members. The people of ASEAN trade, invest and travel among the ASEAN group, much more than they do with China. Making ASEAN a regional supply chain, a regional production house and a potential market can make the ASEAN economy self-resilient, raise our voice internationally and strengthen the world community.


ASEAN members must find a balance between internal and external interests and expedite their part in operationalizing connectivity and sustainable development.


Indonesia and Thailand, together with ASEAN members, have the ability to survive.


Finding new resources among ourselves by combining our strengths and competitiveness is the best way for us not only to survive, but also to be resilient and grow strong like we are supposed to.





Songphol Sukchan

Ambassador of Thailand to Indonesia


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