FLARE-UP RAISES QUESTIONS OVER MILITARY COOPERATION
Spat with Singapore sends a warning to all countries on dealings with Thaksin
It was all hugs and kisses last week at the Asean summit in Cebu, in the Philippines, when the 10 Southeast Asian leaders came together to launch the first-ever blueprint for the grouping's charter - deemed crucial for shoring up the bloc's credibility and legal identity.
But as they were trying to turn this regional grouping into a rules-based organisation, they were also banking on the notion that their long-standing tradition of non-interference would hold.
But that very spirit quickly fell apart just days after the summit. On Tuesday Bangkok accused Singapore of being insensitive to its political situation when the island-state permitted ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra to meet with its deputy prime minister Shunmugam Jayakumar.
Thaksin took advantage of his presence in Singapore to give interviews to CNN and The Wall Street Journal. The content of the interviews was critical and quite damaging to the current government and Council for National Security (CNS).
Anger flared in Bangkok as critics lashed out at both the island-state and the Foreign Ministry, with the ministry's old guard accused of not giving their all to the CNS.
While Asean members have engaged in some bitter disputes in recent years, it was somewhat surprising to see Thailand and Singapore at loggerheads.
Though not treaty allies like Thailand and the United States, Thailand and Singapore are deemed long-term strategic partners in terms of investment and regional security.
Singaporean ground forces train annually with their Thai counterparts in Kanchanaburi, where they can stretch out as they engage in conventional warfare training - something they cannot do on the island-state, without blowing up a shopping mall.
Singapore has become a key component of Cobra Gold, one of the largest multinational military exercises in Asia. Its armed and civil forces was one of the largest in Thailand after the tsunami struck, delivering food and medicine as well as carrying out search-and-rescue operations.
In the intelligence sphere, information from Singapore was crucial in tracking down international terrorists such as Hambali and Arifin bin Ali, members of Jemaah Islamiyah, the al-Qaeda-linked terrorist organisation.
"Singapore is concerned that Thailand could be used as a staging ground for terrorist attacks against them," said Chulalongkorn University's Associate Professor Panitan Wattanayagon.
The island-state also utilises Thai airspace to conduct flight training for its airforce. Its 20-year lease for an airbase in Udon Thani was deemed quite generous. But given the current sentiment, it should not come as a surprise if the terms for the lease - as well as other military-related cooperation - now become bargaining chips.
Factoring trade, investment and military cooperation into consideration, one can safely argue that Singapore and Thailand are the closest allies in the region. "It's a relationship with different dimensions," Panitan said. "Singapore is at an advantage when it comes to trade and investment, while Thailand is at advantage in military and security [spheres]," he said.
Unfortunately, this cooperation does not translate into the realm of public diplomacy. Many in the country continue to perceive Singapore as coming out ahead.
Besides traditional security, Singapore is quite concerned about its vulnerability and its place in the region - and the world for that matter. Singapore is stuck between two big and not very friendly neighbours - Malaysia and Indonesia. Strategically, Thailand serves as a counter-balance for Singapore's relations with the two Muslim countries.
It's too early to say how much damage the current stand-off will inflict on the two countries' bilateral ties. The strong retaliation from Bangkok shows how seriously the CNS views the Thaksin factor. The move was also a stern warning to China, Britain, Australia, the US, Indonesia and others over Thailand's sensitivities about any future dealings they may have with the ousted premier, who is accused of massive corruption and heading a highly divisive administration.
While Singapore stands to lose greatly on military and security matters, if ties with Thailand continue to deteriorate, one should not forget that a great number of Thai civil servants from various ministries have received training in Singapore, a country known for its accountability and efficiency, but not necessarily for its political freedom.
Panitan said he was not sure why Thailand had not used its military links to hit out at Singapore. Perhaps it's an indication of things to come, if the situation does not improve. But once the dust has settled, dealings between the two sides will have to be conducted with greater sensitivity.
Singapore does not need to be told that it needs friends like Thailand. Luckily, Thailand is not like Malaysia, where constant bickering is expected over every minor issue. But then again, a mature relationship sometimes needs things to be spelt out in blunt terms - as in the current predicament between Thailand and Singapore.
Recent history has shown that the island-state can be unkind and insensitive to its neighbours. This time around, unfortunately, it came just days after the Asean summit.
And if these two countries cannot get their act together and are prepared to let a man like Thaksin come between them, then what hope is there for the Cebu declaration?