Ambassador of Thailand Maris Sangiampongsa is about to end his three-year posting to New Zealand. The Asia Media Centre asked him for his views on the New Zealand-Thailand relationship.
Are there misconceptions about what New Zealanders think of Thailand?
New Zealanders say that Thailand is a beautiful holiday destination. Not many know that we are a manufacturing hub. Of course, we are proud that we can offer New Zealand tourists beautiful beaches, mountains and environment, but there’s a lot more.
For example, Thailand is now a centre for medical services. Many hospitals offer a high-class service. New Zealand has some problems with orthopaedics, like hip or knee replacements. People have to wait a long time. We can fulfill that need, and through collaboration give a better service. You could send patients to Thailand and follow up at New Zealand hospitals. We can help address the difficulties New Zealand has with the shortage of nurses and doctors.
How would you characterise the New Zealand-Thailand relationship?
We know each other, but we sometimes don’t understand each other well enough. Our relationship is based on a better understanding between government-to-government.
But in fact, the real sustainability of relations depends heavily on another two layers of relations: business-to-business and people-to-people.
Between government-to-government, we have a better understanding and we are friends forever. We are friends in every international forum, and we work together very hard to achieve mutual benefit.
The business-to-business relationship is still not very strong. I’m trying to promote an understanding that doesn’t depend only on trading, but joint ventures or finding strategic partner in Thailand that will make New Zealand bigger and bigger.
I’ve heard a lot about “New Zealand is very small”, or “New Zealand is very isolated”. If we can work together in the area of business, we will make New Zealand bigger, and bring New Zealand closer to the heart of Asia.
How is Thailand addressing climate change and sustainability? Is there more room for cooperation?
Thailand is very keen to work with New Zealand on the environment. We know that New Zealand is a leader on climate change as a result of agriculture.
Thailand is also an agricultural country. We have a lot of plantations and rice fields. The environmental impact on human beings because of agricultural activities is one of the areas that we’d like to work together with New Zealand.
Another thing is that we have limited resources. New Zealand has a lot of technology, for example precision agriculture, that make maximum use of limited resources to preserve natural resources for the future.
How does Thailand’s relationship with China compare to New Zealand’s relationship with China?
Of course it’s not the same. China is important not only to New Zealand, but to Thailand as well. We have a particular relationship with China because we share blood. Thai people have a lot of relatives in China. We are very close. We understand China and China understands Thailand.
New Zealand has strong relations in the areas of trading and business. In our case, we share similar values, traditions, and practices. I would say that we are closer to China than New Zealand to China.
“When I came New Zealand, I heard New Zealand is part of Asia. But do you think in the Asian way or Western way? Of course you think in a Western way. The eastern philosophy is not yet in New Zealand.”
I believe that China is too big for New Zealand. Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia are the perfect size for New Zealand to work together with to promote a stronger link to China.
Or you can use Thailand, or countries in Southeast Asia, as the alternative. For example, if you depend heavily on China and something happens, at least you have alternatives. You have Thailand, strategic partners to work with you. I’m not saying that you are going to have difficulties with China, but Thailand can be an alternative.
What is happening with Thailand’s election plans?
The recent postponement of the election does not depend on the government, it depends on the parliament. Now we have the 2017 Constitution, and the ten organic laws [which concern the new electoral system] already passed through parliament.
There are some changes which the parliament approved, and went to special committee. Some of the members of the committee believed that the change in the law would come into effect as soon as it is entered into the National Gazette.
But for the parties to prepare for the election, the committee believed that we need to give them 90 days in order to prepare themselves.
Has the issue of elections impacted the New Zealand-Thailand relationship?
No, I don’t think so. New Zealand would like to see elections in Thailand.
We are trying to find our own way of democracy. It is the democracy that fits our environment and people. The government is trying very hard to make sure that the election and the constitution will benefit the people, not anyone in particular.
Several issues that we are focused on, for example, are corruption, the well-being of the people, and the equal opportunities for everyone in society.
The government just announced the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC). What does that signal for Thailand’s economic future?
The EEC is one of the biggest projects that the government is trying to promote. We want to promote business driven by innovation. For example, next-generation vehicles, smart agriculture and tourism.
As I mentioned, smart agriculture is one of the areas that we would like to promote. New Zealand can play a big role in these areas, because New Zealand has a lot of technologies. We also have our own technologies. New Zealand can take advantage to do business with Thailand to promote a bigger scale.
Thailand is a hub of manufacturing. For example, you are very keen in the dairy industry and dairy powder is one of the main products. But New Zealand alone cannot produce milk powder for the whole international market. You need friends and strategic partners.
“Manufacturing is the area that Thailand has the most potential for New Zealand. Not many people know that Thailand produces 2.5 million cars a year. They don’t look at Thailand as an investment destination.”
How does Thailand view agreements like RCEP? Would it ever join CPTPP?
I cannot say whether Thailand would join or not — we are in the process of understanding CPTPP. But on FTAs, your former minister Todd McClay visited Thailand last year. During his visit we revised the agreement together to make more benefit for the people, for the private sector to do business together. Free trade is one mechanism that promotes a high volume of trade.
But I would like to draw more attention of the New Zealand private sector not to look only at trading. The big opportunity is business together. Trading is one part, but investment and joint venture will benefit and drive business between Thailand and New Zealand.
Free trade agreements are frameworks, and of course we need to have a framework that we can work with. But free trade is not the mechanism that can drive trading or investment alone. You have to facilitate private sector to do business together.
What do you think of New Zealand’s approach to investment?
New Zealand is not a country that looks to invest outside the country. There are several companies that are ready to invest outside of New Zealand. But they don’t have opportunities, they don’t understand the real situations. You need to make sure they understand Thailand, they understand the potential of the Thai people.
What achievements you are particularly proud of from your three years here?
I helped one Auckland construction company to work with businesses in Thailand. They produce plastic for construction, and are very successful. Now it is expanding and needs more workers to handle the bigger market in Southeast Asia. After the joint venture, their market is bigger, but the capacities for production are limited.
Another area that I am working to promote is in education. Here in New Zealand, some students come from Thailand. They must take an English test, and if not satisfactory must take a foundation course. I am trying to promote an agreement between universities here and institutions in Thailand so that we can have teaching of English and foundation courses in Thailand.
Sometimes New Zealand universities here don’t understand that we have high levels of curriculum.
Another project I am very proud of is promoting joint ventures in the dairy industry. Now I’m trying to promote joint ventures between the Thailand and New Zealand private sectors. I’d like to see investment in dairy farms in Thailand. We produce raw milk, then you can process it. Processing is very easy in Thailand because we are a hub of manufacturing. But we need New Zealand private sector to invest to increase the volume of raw materials.
New Zealand has a lot of technologies from the very beginning of the value chain, including the genetic development of the cattle. Working together with Thailand in the area of heat tolerance, because Thailand has a totally different climate — we have heat and moisture which is a stress for cattle.
– Asia Media Centre