Thailand: The Making of a Near-Antarctic State

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Credit: Xiengyod, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Since the end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, Arctic stakeholders have managed to keep the region relatively peaceful. In recent years though, some features of the bellicosity during the Cold War–era are re-emerging in the Artic region with the ascension of great-power competition.

The militarization of the maritime and space domains in the North Pole region has led some geopolitical analysts to argue that the United States should in turn commence preparing for the militarization of the land and space domains in the South Pole region – Antarctica –, too.

Already in 2018, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence “Global Strategy Trends: The Future Starts Today” (sixth edition) forecasted that militarized activity in the Antarctic will also increase in parallel to the Artic region with the result that the Antarctic Treaty System [1959/1961/1972/1980/1991] is likely to come under increasing pressure. “With a review of the Treaty in 2048, some countries (particularly non- and late-treaty signers) may see this as an opportunity to renegotiate the Antarctic Treaty System, potentially leading to tension.”

Thailand is not presently a stakeholder in the Artic region nor a signatory to the Antarctic Treaty System. For instance, the Royal Thai Navy’s National Maritime Security Plan only mentions the Poles (so-called, “circumpolar politics”) parenthetically concerned by the damages inflicted upon domestic coastal communities from the rise of sea levels linked to Climate Change – e.g., the most recent floods and landslides that transpired in four provinces in the South of Thailand displaced over 50,000 households – along with the ascension of non-traditional maritime security issues – i.e., piracy, armed robbery at sea, seaborne terrorism, etc. – that displacements have historically elicited in the Southeast Asia sub-region.

Yet there has been a gradually concerted effort by academics, royals and bureaucrats towards bolstering Thailand’s political and operational presence on the southern continent over the last several years.

Starting in 1993, Princess Sirindhorn became the first Thai ever to study geography and living species of the South Pole on New Zealand’s Scot Base in Antarctica. This expedition motivated her to set up the Polar Research Team of Thailand (PRTT) to cooperate with polar research centers across the world to create an opportunity for Thai scientists to conduct research activities there.

In 2004, after a formal request sent from the PRTT to Japan, the National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA) invented an underwater robot explorer for the Antarctic region, capable of diving to the depth of up to fifty meters. The robot was invented in preparation of Woranop Wiyakan, marine scientist at Chulalongkorn University, becoming the first Thai to take part in a southern polar expedition with the 46th Japanese Arctic Research Expedition (JARE-46) under the National Institute of Polar Research (NIPR) of Japan.

In 2009, Assistant Professor Suchana Chavanich from the Department of Marine Science, Faculty of Science, Chulalongkorn University became the first Thai female scientist to join the 51st Japanese research team (JARE-51) for climate change study in Antarctica.

In 2013, the NSTDA signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration (CAAA). The Agency then coordinated with Thai universities to select scholars whose research focused on polar science. In 2019, the NSTDA and CAAA extended this cooperation on polar sciences until April 2024.

In 2014, Associate Professor Suchana Chawanich and Assistant Professor Onruthai Pinyakhong of the Faculty of Science, Chulalongkorn University were selected for the research collaboration with the CAAA. They travelled with the survey team of the 30th Chinese Antarctic Research Expedition (CHINARE-30) doing research at the Great Wall Station.

In 2016, Prayath Nantasin, a geologist at the Department of Earth Science at Kasetsart University’s Faculty of Science, set off on a journey to Antarctica to conduct a scientific study on the continent as part of the 58th Japanese Arctic Research Expedition (JARE-58). That same year, Thailand also became a member of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) and increased its science and logistical activity and/or developing stations in Antarctica.

In 2018, as a result of the efforts by Princess Sirindhorn five years earlier, Pongpichit Chuanraksasat, a scientist from the National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand (NARIT), joined a Polar Research Institute of China (PRIC) team for a five-month research project covering astronomy and pole science. In order to support the research project, the Astronomy and Astrophysics Antarctic Research in Thailand (AAART), Faculty of Science, Chiang Mai University built a neutron monitoring station inside a shipping container (named, “Changvan”) located at Chiang Mai University (Thailand), in partnership with the PRIC, Mahidol University (Thailand), Shinshu University (Japan), University of Delaware (United States), and University of Wisconsin Riverfalls (United States).

Most recently, the Siam Society Under Royal Patronage presented a joint event with the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Thailand and the Russian Geographical Society. This event featured a three-part Russian documentary about Antarctica in past and present, a lecture by Kirill Kuznetsov, an expert of the Russian Geographical Society, and an exhibition of archived photos and materials on the discovery of Antarctica.

Similar to China with the Artic region, Thailand’s coasts do not border with the Antarctic seas nor does it claim to have sovereignty on under-continental shelves or water in the Antarctic region. Nonetheless, it may be argued that some of the same reasons and justifications articulated by China to become a “near-Artic state” (2018) could theoretically be articulated by Thailand to become a “near-Antarctic state” by the start of the next decade.

There are specific benefits that increased activity in the Antarctic region could bring to Thailand. First, Thailand could get information about Climate Change on its own accord without needing to depend on data gathered by other states or international organizations. This would effectively allow the government to organize its own approach towards assuaging Climate Change’s threat multipliers at the source. Second, Thailand would affirm its status as one of the leading powers inside the Southeast Asia sub-region. Third, Thailand would help achieve the stated objectives of the Thailand 4.0 and 20-Years National Strategy by bringing new companies, technologies and funds into the country through enhancement of Track 1.5 and Track 2 networks. Finally, Thailand could accelerate its recent development of new equipment for the space domain, like neutron monitoring technology for cosmic rays.

Under its current trajectory, it is not impossible to imagine that in a decade’s time, Thailand could send vessels to assist a naval combined task force monitor non-traditional maritime security infractions (i.e., illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (UII)) and protect legitimate merchant vessels against piracy in and around the Antarctic seas; in the same ways that the Royal Thai Navy successfully participated and ultimately commanded the Combined Task Force 151 in the Gulf of Aden, Somalia.

In the end, though Thailand’s efforts in Antarctica are still nascent and currently civilian-led without military or naval backing to mention, there are efforts afoot towards the region that necessitate closer attention over the ensuing decade and, of which, may in a decade’s time engender the acquisition of respective naval assets to affirm the intent behind Thailand’s self-endowed appellation: near-Antarctic state.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.