Visits 'will test' Thai diplomacy

A foreign affairs observer is warning that upcoming visits by US and Chinese leaders could put the government in an uncomfortable position between two of its most important allies.

Aksornsri Phanishsarn, a China expert at Thammasat University's faculty of economics, said the visits to Thailand should be seen as more than symbolic gestures of good relations.

US President Barack Obama will arrive in Bangkok on Sunday afternoon, while Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will make a two-day visit to Thailand next week.

Both leaders will meet Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and will have an audience with His Majesty the King at Siriraj Hospital during their visits.

Ms Aksornsri said Mr Obama's visit to Thailand is a clear move by Washington to counter China's increasing regional influence.

The US has recently made a number of similar visits to other countries in the region with the aim of fostering closer ties, she said.

The government should be careful of "choosing sides" between China and the US, she said, noting that both nations are longstanding allies of Thailand.

Thailand and China have a long history of trade, and Thailand currently serves as an important gateway to Asean markets. So it is possible that Mr Wen wants to emphasise the need for that to continue, Ms Aksornsri said.

Thailand and the US have been allies for 180 years, so the government must be careful not to harm that relationship either, she said. The government needs to maintain a good balance between the two major powers, she added.

Chinese ambassador to Thailand Guan Mu said China welcomes countries outside of Asia building relationships within the continent, but he added that "Beijing is also pleased with the constructive role the countries in this region have played, and we oppose any actions which will undermine Chinese interests in the region and in the world".

Though Mr Wen has been to Thailand before, this will be his first official visit.

Mr Guan said China was ready to cooperate with all of its regional neighbours for the sake of progress.

Asia's current state of relative political stability should be used as an opportunity for economic development across the region, Mr Guan said.

During the Chinese premier's visit, Mr Wen and Ms Yingluck will discuss a rice purchase deal, the oft-mentioned high-speed train project and the South China Sea territorial rights issue during their meeting, the ambassador said.

Meanwhile, FTA Watch, a non-governmental organisation focusing on free trade agreement issues, yesterday called on the government to revise its plans to become a part of the controversial US-led Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement.

In an open letter to Ms Yingluck , FTA Watch encouraged the prime minister to put planned negotiations to become a TPP member on hold until a proper and thorough study into the advantages and disadvantages of TPP membership is conducted and the results are publicised.

"Of course, Thailand should never stop developing trade and international relations, but this very important matter should not be done in haste," FTA Watch said.

"If the government cares only about trade opportunities, the country's public welfare and sustainable development could be greatly impacted by TPP membership."

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Writer: Thanida Tansubhapol
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