18 Apr 2024

'Ambitious' trade pledge headlines Luxon's Thailand stop

12:33 pm on 18 April 2024
Christopher Luxon official welcome at Bangkok's Government House, April 2024.

Christopher Luxon is officially welcomed to Bangkok's Government House by Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, April 2024. Photo: Dan Brunskill

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon has jointly announced a commitment to triple two-way trade with Thailand by 2045, but that only requires maintaining growth at current levels.

Luxon today is heading to the Philippines after his one-day-blitz through Thailand's capital Bangkok.

The visit included Tuk Tuk tour of the city to create social media content, and a performance featuring a combination of kapa haka and Thai traditional dance to welcome Luxon, the first New Zealand Prime Minister to formally attend bilateral talks since 2013.

A period of military rule after a 2014 coup had cooled relations, but new Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin - a businessman-turned-politician, dubbed the Salesman PM - comes from a similar mould to Luxon.

Christopher Luxon on Tuk Tuk tour in Bangkok, April 2024.

Luxon on his Tuk Tuk tour of Bangkok Photo: Dan Brunskill

He formed a coalition with pro-military factions in the parliament, securing the top job in September last year, but is a former real estate tycoon who headed the multinational Procter & Gamble consumer goods company in Thailand before entering politics.

Together, he and Luxon witnessed the signing of agreements between NZ's Massey University and Thailand's Office of the Basic Education Commission to allow 140 teachers to be taught under the supervision of the Thai office; and between New Zealand's Skydive Limited and Thai Aviation Industries for supply, repair and maintenance support of the Royal Thai Airforce's CT/4 planes.

They later emerged from "comprehensive and constructive" leader-to-leader talks with what they said was a "new ambitious goal of tripling two-way trade by 2045".

The announcement, however, hides the fact it only requires maintaining the existing level of growth with much of the work already being done by inflation. They did not answer questions after the announcement.

The two also committed to reinvigorating tourism - resuming direct flights which shut down because of the Covid pandemic - and returning visitor numbers back to pre-Covid levels.

Christopher Luxon official welcome at Bangkok's Government House, April 2024.

Srettha welcomes Luxon to Government House. Photo: Dan Brunskill

That's seemingly at odds with recent changes to visa costs, however, after Thailand suddenly increased fees for Kiwi tourists last month from $60 for a 60-day stay to $300. Luxon, questioned earlier in the day about that, said he was not aware of the increase.

Thailand has sought to stay neutral regarding the war in Ukraine - and has invited Russia's Vladimir Putin to come visit, although their joint statement pointed to support for a "just and lasting peace" in accordance with the UN charter, and commitment to supporting Ukraine's sovereignty.

Srettha also made a show of globe-hopping early in his term, but is currently on a self-imposed stay-at-home order after a public backlash to all the time he spent abroad: about a third of his first six months in office.

Christopher Luxon official welcome at Bangkok's Government House, April 2024.

Luxon sits down with Srettha at Thailand's government house. Photo: Dan Brunskill

National levelled a similar complaint against Jacinda Ardern in 2019 - describing her as part-time PM - but Luxon was confident he could do it all.

"I've been at home, and I am at home, I can do both," he said. "If you think about it, I'm taking five days in a working week to actually get around three countries that are very important to our future ... these are places where we know that we can actually grow our business with these markets."

"I think we've got the balance right, but you are right: I've asked myself and Winston Peters and Judith Collins and Todd McClay to make sure that we are stepping up our engagement, our intensity in our relationships because that's actually how we secure our economic prosperity in the future."

Joint statement: Commitments and plans to progress

The two prime ministers' joint statement included a promise to elevate the bilateral relationship "to a strategic partnership by 2026", marking the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations.

Plans on exactly how to do that appear to be in very early stages however, with Luxon promising to establish a Prime Minister's Fellowship to make recommendations on how to do that every two years until then and both directing their foreign ministries to coordinate and collaborate "on establishing a comprehensive roadmap and plan of action".

On defence, they said a cooperation plan was being progressed, which would aim to increase capacity and interoperability - allowing their systems to communicate. They also "committed to exploring more opportunities" for cooperation, including on cybersecurity, counterterrorism, intelligence sharing and law enforcement support for Thailand.

As well as the promise to scale-up two-way trade, Luxon extended a programme helping develop Thailand's dairy industry for a further two years, and the two prime ministers agreed to "look for opportunities" to further expand economic cooperation.

They also agreed to "collaborate on the advancement of renewable energy solutions", pointing to the possibility of joint projects on energy tech development and use of carbon markets.

The statement also included cultural cooperation commitments, underlined by a goal of 100,000 Kiwi tourists visiting Thailand and 40,000 Thai tourists visiting New Zealand by 2025 with the plan to reintroduce direct flights. They also promised to "promote arts and cultural exchanges". It noted Luxon's announcement earlier in the day for two new teacher training initiatives at Massey University.

Luxon also commited to join the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy - an economic commitment out of the 2003 ASEAN Summit which includes Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar and aimed to progress over 250 specific projects - as a development partner.

The statement noted the prime ministers also discussed New Zealand supporting Thailand as a candidate for the UN Human Rights Council between 2025 and 2027, and Thailand wanting to become a member of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).

They also discussed the situation in Myanmar and the South-China Sea, and the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza.