Editorial Notes

Thai Foreign Minister's 'love declaration' for China counterpart a big misstep, says The Nation

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi (left) at a joint press conference with Thai Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn in Kuala Lumpur on Aug 5.
China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi (left) at a joint press conference with Thai Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn in Kuala Lumpur on Aug 5. PHOTO: EPA

In its editorial on Aug 11, 2015, The Nation says Thai Foreign Minister Tanasak's move could damage relations with Asean neighbours and the wider international community.

The "human touch" can be a useful tool in international diplomacy, but only if you know how to use it.

The way it was wielded by Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn last week during the Asean ministerial meeting in Malaysia left a hole in the reputation of Thai diplomacy.

Meanwhile, the general himself has become a figure of fun in diplomatic circles. 

"Thai junta envoy admits crush on China," was the headline that the international media used to report General Tanasak's statement from the podium while standing beside Chinese counterpart Wang Yi during their press conference in Kuala Lumpur.

"If I were a woman I would fall in love with his excellency," he told reporters in English, much to the surprise of China's top foreign envoy, who appeared somewhat unsure of how to respond.

There would be nothing wrong with his statement if the general had made it at a closed-doors meeting or informal conversation (though such sentiments are more usually associated with quiet chats over a candlelit dinner). 

But offering these words while attending media and diplomats were waiting for a statement on territory disputes in the South China Sea, and relations between China, Thailand and Asean, was a blunder of serious proportions. 

Diplomacy is the art of expression. The task of a diplomat is to know what to say in any given situation and how to say it. 

Thailand's top diplomat knew he was dealing with a rising powerhouse in the region. Beijing is now at loggerheads with several Asean member-countries over disputed territory in the South China Sea. China andAsean are attempting mediation of the conflicts through a code of conduct governing the disputed sea. 

The Thai foreign minister has a crucial role as a coordinator between Asean and China, and the international community was eager to hear what he had to say on progress in firming up the code of conduct. 

But rather than using his diplomatic skills to express the delicate regional power relations and rivalry that exists between Thailand, Asean, China and the United States, Gen Tanasak chose to express his personal feelings towards the Chinese minister.

Of course, this wooing of Mr Wang was actually a clumsy attempt to show that Thailand maintains "special" ties with China even as relations between Beijing and other Asean member states sour. 

Our Asean neighbours were already aware that China enjoyed a close relationship with Thailand, one which grew closer after the military coup of May last year.

It was hardly necessary for Thailand to flaunt that fact in front of representatives of other Asean countries at a regional meeting where they were calling for unity in dealing with China.

Where is Thailand's spirit of solidarity with Asean? Was it a good idea to express affection for a country that is in conflict with our regional neighbours? 

The coup on May 22 last year has already damaged Thailand's international reputation. The country has also suffered penalties over human trafficking and problems with illegal practices in the fishing industry. Democratic norms have been shelved and basic liberties curbed. 

Few expected that the general in charge of the Foreign Ministry would be able to salvage Thailand's reputation in international eyes. But the minister has a duty not to make things any worse than they already are.

From now on, Gen Tanasak would be wise to heed the words of Abraham Lincoln: "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt."


Editorial Notes reproduces an editorial from a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of 22 newspapers.