This article is part of the ‘Blue Security’ project led by La Trobe Asia, University of Western Australia Defence and Security Institute, Griffith Asia Institute, UNSW Canberra and the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy and Defence Dialogue (AP4D). Views expressed are solely of its author/s and not representative of the Maritime Exchange, the Australian Government, or any collaboration partner country government.

What are the maritime governance priorities for Thailand?

Thailand’s maritime governance priorities can be summarized in three points: modernize its naval force, clarify legal ambiguities, and reorient its strategic culture toward the maritime domain.

Thailand seeks to modernize naval assets to boost its domain awareness, strengthen deterrence, and improve the suppression of illicit maritime activities.[1] Thailand’s maritime governance is already backed by one of the strongest navies in Southeast Asia and continues to procure relatively high-end naval warfare capabilities from diverse international partners, though the capacity remains less than the government desires.[2] Simultaneously, it is establishing an indigenous shipbuilding industry to reduce import dependency amid greater global uncertainties.[3] Because Thailand is a non-claimant state in the South China Sea and maintains cordial relations with all major powers, it does not face an existential threat in the form of direct conflict with a great power. However, an invasion is not unthinkable and Thailand is confronted with evolving non-state threats. Given that Thailand’s defense flexibility is restricted by the absence of a maritime shortcut between the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand, a robust naval presence on both national coasts is needed to ensure maximum security and resilience.

Thailand also prioritizes the clarification of legal ambiguities as an element of its campaign to improve maritime governance. Under the dictates of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Thailand has become a zone-locked state whereby vessels calling on its ports must transit through neighboring exclusive economic zones (EEZs) to reach the high seas.[4] Conflicting legal mandates (UNCLOS’ freedom of navigation in EEZs versus coastal states’ regulations to safeguard national interests) have then prompted disagreements between Thailand and its immediate neighbors, especially Malaysia. Foreseeing difficulties, Thai officials have long argued that zone-locked states with limited mobility should be granted special privileges, much like the geographically disadvantaged land-locked and archipelagic states.[5] Yet this demand remains legally unanswered, and Thailand has instead relied on negotiations for “flexible arrangements” with its neighbors.[6] While Thai naval ships have not encountered any serious problem, Thai fishers—who are increasingly forced to fish in the distant seas amid declining fish stocks at home—have continued to clash with neighboring fishers and law enforcement authorities.[7] Fishery conflicts have been suppressed thanks to the iron-fisted fishery governance set in place by the government of former prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, but they could surge against the backdrop of Thailand’s administrative change and worsening regional depletions.

Third, Thailand needs to reconfigure its national strategic culture.[8] Thailand historically had more continental enemies and its civilization, despite profiting from the seas, expanded primarily along land routes.[9] In other words, Thailand’s strategic thinking is deeply land-oriented and Thais commonly do not identify themselves as maritime people. These characteristics could significantly hamper Thailand’s naval upgrades, and ultimately maritime domain awareness. The pandemic and inflation have played major roles in reducing the enthusiasm for defense investment, yet the fact that the acquisition of Chinese Yuan-class submarines has generated more backlash than the simultaneous effort to procure of American F-35 fighters (a less useful and exceptionally expensive system) speaks volumes about the low priority assigned to naval modernization.[10]

What does Thailand see as the most critical maritime security challenges?

Thailand has unresolved maritime disputes with Cambodia and Myanmar and a joint development area with Malaysia that is due to expire in 2029.[11] These, however, have been fairly well-managed through dialogue and are not Thailand’s top concerns. Instead, Thailand is preoccupied with non-traditional threats that immediately jeopardize people’s livelihood and economic growth derived from commercial shipping, coastal tourism, fisheries, and offshore drilling. These include environmental damage; the smuggling of drugs and migrants; and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.[12]

IUU fishing, which is closely intertwined with human trafficking and forced labor, is a particularly complex challenge. Thailand rose from a minor fishing nation in the 1960s to become the world’s third-largest seafood exporter (by value) in the 2010s. This was despite the creation of the 200-nautical mile EEZ regime under UNCLOS which eliminated 300,000 square kilometres of traditional Thai fishing grounds, putting these waters under the jurisdiction of neighboring states, namely Cambodia, Malaysia and Vietnam.[13] These dynamics indicate the relatively large-scale Thai economic dependence on IUU fishing.[14] To comply with international standards—specifically to lift the “yellow card” issued by the European Commission (EC) and delist Thailand from the “Tier 3” ranking in the United States’ Trafficking in Persons report—the predecessor Prayut government introduced tough regulatory and punitive measures. Although these measures have been praised internationally and enabled the Prayut administration to quickly meet its targets, they have resulted in new forms of domestic insecurity. New realities have exacerbated problems such as labor shortages, higher operational costs, and revenue losses from exporting less and importing more fishery products. Notably, the requirement for commercial fishing boats to install automatic identification systems on top of Vessel Monitoring Systems has been widely rejected and brought to court.[15]

The massive protest outside Bangkok’s agriculture ministry in December 2019 suggests that harsh IUU rules are having a severe impact on Thai fishers.[16] With the loss of legal access to their traditional fishing areas, many Thais already view the international maritime law unfavorably and the issue of IUU fishing has easily become politicized. Several major parties, including the Pheu Thai Party that is now heading Thailand’s recently sworn-in coalition government, have vowed to relax existing rules and better compensate fishers.[17] Indeed, in one of his first events as Thailand’s new prime minister, Srettha Thavisin met with fisheries representatives to reassure them of his government’s commitment to soften anti-IUU fishing laws.[18] Striking a balance between law enforcement and people’s welfare is hence Thailand’s current biggest challenge.

What are the maritime governance strengths of Thailand?

The Thai Maritime Enforcement Command Center (Thai-MECC) provides an unusual level of centralized control over the nation’s maritime governance activities. The Thai-MECC formed in 1997 was originally a weak coordination center with limited authority, but it has been dramatically empowered following the arrival of the military-backed Prayut government in 2014. Since 2019, it has officially become Thailand’s overarching maritime security authority. Now a de jure powerful enforcer under the Office of the Prime Minister’s aegis, Thai-MECC can rightfully carry out surveillance and investigation into any matter deemed a threat to Thailand’s maritime interests. It can also issue indictments.[19] Thai-MECC also exercises tactical control over the Royal Thai Navy (RTN) and six other agencies.[20] Furthermore, by positioning itself as a focal point of contact, Thai-MECC’s presence is conducive to closer international cooperation.

The prime minister, as Thai-MECC’s head, can give direct orders and intervene in any potential clash of authority between sub-agencies. As of January 2018, Thailand had spent $60.5 million to combat  IUU practices.[21] Apart from the issuance of over 100 IUU-related regulations, Thailand had established 32 Port In-Port Out control centers in 22 coastal provinces, equipped at least 6,125 commercial fishing vessels with VMS, and reduced the size of Thai fishing fleet from 50,000 to 39,069 vessels.[22] Finally, in January 2019, the EC formally lifted the yellow card warning.[23]

What are the most significant maritime governance capacity gaps of Thailand?

Thai-MECC’s centralized power can nonetheless be a double-edged sword. The prime minister has other priorities in times of “peace”, as evidenced by Prayut’s concentration on the economic cabinet after the IUU yellow card removal, making the RTN chief who is Thai-MECC’s second-in-command a de facto leader.[24] The fact that Thai-MECC Areas are overseen by commanders of the Naval Area Commands has further strengthened the RTN’s institutional dominance.[25] Notwithstanding the general acceptance of the RTN’s pivotal role in governing Thailand’s maritime space, both in terms of traditional defense and safeguarding broader maritime interests, the militarization of Thai-MECC could undermine interagency cooperation by alienating civilian-led agencies and making them more reluctant to share information.[26] Amid the perpetual polarization between pro and anti-military forces in Thailand, sustaining healthy civil-military relations is difficult. Beyond the domestic aspect, the militarized Thai-MECC has a tendency to work with international agencies that are staffed predominantly by uniformed rather than civilian officers, thus limiting the scope of international interactions.[27]

There are also concerns about staff disengagement and discontinuity at Thai-MECC. Since this is a somewhat ad hoc organization, most operational officers have been “borrowed” from other agencies. They hold concurrent positions and typically work as Thai-MECC staff for 1-2 years, thus bringing their institutional interests with them to the job.[28] Thailand certainly recognizes potential disadvantages of staff rotation, though this trend is likely here to stay considering the expected public sector downsizing scheme.[29]

What are priority areas for international cooperation that would improve maritime governance capacity in Thailand?

Internally, normative and human resource barriers appear to be key hindrances to Thailand’s maritime governance. While interagency competition and manning constraints require internal solutions, international efforts could help promote an inclusive understanding of contemporary maritime security and rule of law among the Thai population. Public diplomacy, education, research support, and perhaps the revitalization of non-military cooperation like the Indian Ocean Rim Association could help bridge normative barriers and encourage meaningful participation of more “non-traditional” actors beyond naval officers. At a broader level, Thailand is clearly anxious about the rights of its fishing vessels to pass through neighboring EEZs and would favor the converging of legal practices between UNCLOS and individual states. To further enhance governance, emerging concerns that are not covered by UNCLOS such as rising sea levels and biodiversity loss should be addressed at the ASEAN Maritime Forum (AMF) and other relevant institutions.

How can existing regional and minilateral security frameworks contribute to maritime governance in Thailand?

Thailand has engaged in numerous maritime governance arrangements—bilaterally, minilaterally, and multilaterally—that center around patrolling and information sharing. The Malacca Straits Patrol, Mekong Joint Patrol, the Gulf of Thailand sub-regional cooperation on oil spill, and the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) are some examples of maritime cooperation undertaken by Thailand. Continuing cooperation through these practical frameworks would benefit Thailand in two ways. First, by having access to real-time data and training, Thailand would be equipped with enduring preparedness to respond to day-to-day challenges. Second, Thailand would have rooms to project its commitment to safeguard the maritime common good. The ASEAN Maritime Outlook released in August 2023, for instance, identifies marine debris and pollution as one of the region’s pressing issues.[30] Thailand, being a nation with experience in this area, could definitely play a leading role.[31]

Dialogue-based ASEAN-centric institutions like the AMF and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting, meanwhile, are platforms for Thailand to advance principles of non-interference and non-alignment. Amid a growing global appetite for minilateral cooperation, Thailand will probably widen and deepen engagement in minilateral groupings. Still, when it comes to groups that are closely associated with geopolitical containment (for example AUKUS and the Quad), Thailand will exercise utmost caution and most likely continue to maintain a passive stance to avoid potential entanglement.

[1] Royal Thai Navy, Royal Thai Navy White Paper 2023, November 21, 2023,

[2] John F. Bradford and Wilfried A. Hermann, “Thailand’s Maritime Strategy: National Resilience and Regional Cooperation”, Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs 4, no. 9 (2021): 29-46.

[3] Royal Thai Navy White Paper 2023, 21.

[4] Somjade Kongrawd, “UNCLOS and Thailand: Security, Prosperity and Sustainability”, Fulcrum, October 18, 2022,

[5] Kasem Niamchay, The Codification of the Law of the Sea and its Implications for the Royal Thai Navy (New York: United Nations Office of Legal Affairs, 2012), 78-79, available online at

[6] Ibid, 57.

[7] Ted L. McDorman, “International Fishery Relations in the Gulf of Thailand”, Contemporary Southeast Asia 12, no. 1 (1990): 40-54.

[8] Office of the National Security Council, National Maritime Security Plan (2023-2027), March 1, 2023,

[9] Chris Baker, “Ayutthaya Rising: From Land or Sea?”, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 34, no. 1 (2003): 41-62.

[10] Tita Sanglee and Ian Storey, “Post-election, Thailand’s Next Government Faces Difficult Military Procurement Decisions”, Fulcrum, June 1, 2023,

[11] National Maritime Security Plan (2023-2027), 91-93.

[12] Somjade Kongrawd, “Thailand’s Conceptualizations of Maritime Security”, CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, December 1, 2021,

[13] McDorman, “International Fishery Relations in the Gulf of Thailand”, 41.

[14] Swedish International Agricultural Network Initiative, “Who pays the price for cheap seafood?”, February 19, 2019,

[15] “ประมงร้องศาลปกครอง เพิกถอนประกาศติด AIS” [Fishers File Case to Administrative Court to Remove AIS Installation], Prachachat, April 21, 2022,

[16] Patpicha Tanakasempipat, “Thousands of Thai fishermen protest against tough industry regulations”, Reuters, December 17, 2019,

[17] Arin Chinnasathian and Karen Lee, “How Thailand’s Upcoming Election May Alter Its Foreign Policy”, The Diplomat, April 11, 2023,

[18] Aekarach Sattaburuth, “New prime minister vows to tackle fishing industry woes”, Bangkok Post, September 2, 2023,

[19] Bradford and Hermann, “Thailand’s Maritime Strategy”, 40.

[20] Thai-MECC, “Mission and Organizational Structure”, accessed May 1, 2023,

[21] Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Facts and Figures: Thailand’s Tangible Progress in Combatting IUU Fishing and Forced Labor”, January 20, 2018,

[22] Ibid.

[23] European Commission, “Commission lifts “yellow card” from Thailand for its actions against illegal fishing”, January 8, 2019,

[24] “Prayut to take charge of economy”, Bangkok Post, July 31, 2019,

[25] Scott Edwards, “From coordination to command: Making Thailand’s maritime security governance more efficient?”, Safe Seas, October 22, 2019,

[26] Ibid.

[27] Scott Edwards, “Fragmentation, Complexity and Cooperation: Understanding Southeast Asia’s Maritime Security Governance”, Contemporary Southeast Asia 44, no. 1 (2022): 87-121.

[28] Thai-MECC, “Regulation of the Executive Board of Thai-MECC on Human Resources B.E. 2563 (2020)”, February 6, 2020,ข้อบังคับคณะกรรมการบริหาร-ศรชล.-ว่าด้วยการบริหารงานบุคคล.pdf.

[29] “Political parties fighting shy of strong stance on much-needed public sector reform”, Thai PBS, May 4, 2023,

[30] ASEAN, ASEAN Maritime Outlook, August 1, 2023,

[31] United Nations, “Thailand makes an effort to protect marine environment from marine debris and land-based pollution”, accessed August 7, 2023,

About Tita Sanglee

Tita Sanglee is an independent analyst and a columnist at The Diplomat. Her commentaries focus on Thailand’s relations with the great powers, Thailand’s security policies, and Thai party politics. She holds a Master’s degree in War Studies from King’s College London, and a Bachelor of Sciences in Politics and International Relations from the University of Bristol. She previously worked as a research assistant based at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, and was an intern at the Royal Thai Government House.