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Opinion

Thailand's preparedness for black swan events

Multilateral diplomacy key to recovering sustainable growth in era of disruption

| Thailand
People visit shopping center in Bangkok in December 2020: the post-COVID world demands a rethink about how we pursue economic growth.   © Reuters

Don Pramudwinai is a deputy prime minister of Thailand and its longtime minister of foreign affairs.

The year 2020 was truly a disruptive time in world history.

The fast-spreading COVID-19 pandemic managed to halt the wave of globalization and forced governments into lockdowns. Businesses were shuttered, employees furloughed or thrown out of work, and existing social inequalities only widened. Everyone realized that business would never again be the same and began adjusting to the new normal.

The pandemic is a harsh reminder that life is full of uncertainties and unknown possibilities. In worst-case scenarios, we don't even know what we don't know -- often leaving us unguarded when the unexpected happens. The damage caused by unknown unknowns or black swans, as some theorists call them, is more troublesome in our smaller and more intertwined world.

Thailand is a medium-sized nation that at black swan moments has always believed that multilateralism in support of sustainable growth will provide a solution.

The challenges that hit us hardest usually undermine human security. Countries must therefore work in concert if the problem is not to linger or perpetually shift about. Therefore Thailand advocates sustainable development in all the multilateral institutions it has either founded or joined -- from the League of Nations in 1920 to the United Nations in 1946; and, regionally, from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS) and the Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD), to name a few.

Thailand's rationale is clear and the benefits self-evident. Non-major powers must combine their individual capabilities to increase their collective political leverage internationally and achieve goals that would elude them going solo. This applies to climate change, sustainable development and, of course, pandemic management. COVID-19 has demonstrated that the traditional great powers have no special power over a disruption that only collaboration and networking can defeat. Understanding that no one is safe until everyone is safe underlines the significance of multilateral cooperation more than ever.

With the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, economic cooperation rose on everyone's agenda. That led to the formation of regional groupings that Thailand either helped found or joined. In addition to ACMECS and ACD, these include Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).

Along with ASEAN, these frameworks underpin the notion of prosper thy neighbor -- a pillar of Thai foreign policy that has cemented our collective regional resolve during previous black swan events. The Asian financial crisis in 1997 and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003 are good examples that both yielded valuable lessons.

The occurrence of COVID-19 and the way sovereign nations coordinate their responses are revealing similar patterns of regional cooperation. An example: In April 2020, Thailand provided full support to Vietnam, the ASEAN chair, organizing the Special ASEAN Summit and the Special ASEAN Plus Three Summit on COVID-19. Thailand also proposed setting up the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund.

This is reminiscent of Thailand hosting the Special ASEAN and ASEAN-China Leaders Meeting and the APEC Health Ministerial Meeting when SARS struck in 2003. It demonstrated the benefits of synergizing strengths in the face of a common threat, and the importance of preparing collectively for possible future disruptions.

Thailand has consistently over the years based its advocacy of sustainable growth on basic human needs and rights. A common resolve on the part of the international community must be to ensure precious resources are not overexploited so that future generations can enjoy clean, decent and green environments all over the world.

The post-COVID world demands a rethink -- a paradigm shift -- about how we pursue economic growth. Our path to date has placed human activity in direct conflict with nature, creating untoward consequences such as climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic -- even social unrest.

The Thai government recently added the Bio-Circular-Green Economy, the BCG Model, to the national policy agenda. It will be our main strategy for economic recovery and development after the pandemic and beyond. Through innovative and sustainable growth strategies that meet human needs, helping lift millions out of poverty while respecting the planet, we hope to achieve a balance -- a middle path -- that harmonizes production and consumption with the preservation of the environment. Because other countries have similar aspirations, Thailand is looking forward to working with like-minded partners to transform bright ideas into concrete deliverables that benefit people everywhere.

With the global economy continuing to struggle, and Thailand's main growth engines stalled, multilateral collaboration must be part of Thailand's exit strategy. For example, to improve Thailand's position in the global value chain, continued regional commitment to developing transportation networks and harmonization of regulations are essential.

The pandemic has at least spurred digitalization, including in business, telemedicine and remote education. We must take this opportunity to promote cooperation through improved global connectivity and upgrading digital infrastructure and e-commerce.

These stratagems align with the Thailand 4.0 goal of transforming the national economy into one driven by technology and innovation with more value-added industries. The Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) lies at the core of this policy, and promotes investment in twelve targeted industries, such as next-generation automobiles, smart electronics and food for the future. Such industries bode well for job creation and economic dynamism in Thailand and the region. The EEC is a magnet for foreign investors who want good logistics married to a strategic location in Southeast Asia.

The construction site of the Eastern Economic Corridor of Innovation at Wangchan Valley, pictured in 2020. (Handout photo from Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Thailand)

Thailand obviously advocates free and multilateral trade in the region. The signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) last year could not have been achieved without its 20 chapters being drafted in 2019 when Thailand held the ASEAN chair. It was a huge undertaking, but the agreement will give Thai entrepreneurs access to trade and investment opportunities in a market of 2.2 billion people -- nearly a third of the world's population.

Thailand will take its turn as chair of BIMSTEC from 2021 to 2022 and of APEC in 2022. These place it in a unique position to strengthen linkages and to play a pivotal role in formulating a post-COVID economic recovery plan for sustainable and healthy regional growth.

Within BIMSTEC, Thailand will press for improved land and sea links to strengthen transport infrastructure and facilitate trade. A flagship project is the 1,360 km trilateral highway from Tak province on Thailand's western border through Myanmar to the Indian border town of Moreh in Manipur state. With regard to maritime connectivity, Thailand plans to link Ranong province on its Andaman coast to the port of Krishnapatnam in India's Andhra Pradesh state as an additional international trade route.

At APEC, Thailand intends to move the grouping forward and concretize the APEC Post-2020 Vision to promote trade and investment. Our goals include promoting digitalization for economic growth, and raising business inclusivity for all population groups, particularly women, people with disabilities and rural communities.

In this era of perpetual change, Thailand realizes that both our inner strengths and international partnerships are vital if we are to be fully prepared for the next normal and adequately braced for external uncertainties.

This year is the transition phase to post-COVID-19 recovery, and Thailand looks forward to working closely with our international partners in bringing about a global rebound and shaping a sustainable future for the generations to come.

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