Building bridges to heal US-China rift

Building bridges to heal US-China rift

Thailand aims to use its unique position between conflicting superpowers to cool tensions while next year's APEC chair

Cherdchai: Seeks to capitalise on Thailand's reputation as 'bridge builder'
Cherdchai: Seeks to capitalise on Thailand's reputation as 'bridge builder'

When Thailand assumes the chairmanship of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) next year, it is hoped the country will be able to build a bridge between the United States and China.

The director-general of the Department of International Economic Affairs, Cherdchai Chaivaivid, sat down with the Bangkok Post to discuss the role that Thailand can play for the two superpowers.

Founded in 1989, APEC was envisioned as a platform for 21 member economies in the Pacific Rim to discuss free trade and economic cooperation.

This year, New Zealand is chair of APEC, after picking up the baton from last year's chair, Malaysia.

In a special interview with the Bangkok Post, Mr Cherdchai said while many countries share the view that "nobody wins a trade war" because it undermines the atmosphere for cooperation, none have been able to decisively act to end it due to the sensitive nature of the issue.

As such, "we will work with [APEC] member economies to resolve it in a constructive manner, and for mutual benefits," he said.

Thailand, he said, will make use of its good relations with both the US and China and build a bridge between the superpowers, especially since Thailand is known as a constructive player that can always find a common ground between developed and developing nations in any setting.

He added this will help the organisation move forward and avoid deadlocks, the most recent of which occurred in 2018 under Papua New Guinea's chairmanship.

When asked about APEC's relevance in light of the creation of new free-trade blocs -- such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) -- Mr Cherdchai said the fact that many APEC members are also RCEP and/or CPTPP members show the extent of their commitment to free trade.

He noted that 12 RCEP signatories and 11 CPTPP participants are also APEC members.

"The Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific [FTAAP] is one of our goals. New Zealand said it will push this agenda. However, we may not reach an agreement this year or next," he said.

APEC leaders recently adopted the APEC Post-2020 Vision to promote trade and investment, digitisation to spur economic growth, and improve business inclusivity for all groups, including women, people with disabilities, and rural communities.

Forging closer ties

While preparing for APEC chairmanship is undoubtedly important, there is a more urgent task waiting at the door.

This year, Thailand will succeed Sri Lanka as the chair of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral, Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), which was founded in Bangkok back in 1997 in an effort to link up South and Southeast Asian economies.

The initiative includes nations which consider themselves dependent on the Bay of Bengal -- namely Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand -- with the addition of Bhutan and Nepal, which are landlocked.

The members have been negotiating a free-trade agreement since 2004 with little results.

As chair, Thailand will push plans to improve land and sea links because as close as BIMSTEC members are to each other, the transport infrastructure that connects them with one another is limited, he said.

Mr Cherdchai said Thailand will press ahead with the trilateral highway project and upgrade its seaports to improve connectivity.

He was referring to the 1,360-kilometre highway which will run from Mae Sot on Thailand's western border, to Myanmar, before ending in the northeastern Indian border town of Moreh, as well as the planned maritime link between Ranong on Thailand's Andaman coast to Krishnapatnam in India.

Benefit of cooperation

When asked about the impact of regional cooperation on people's lives, Mr Cherdchai said, "It is impossible for an entire village to live under one roof", but they can learn to live together constructively.

Mr Cherdchai said the whole point of regional cooperation -- be it Asean, APEC, or other international organisations -- is so Thais can make the best use of the opportunities out there and contribute to society in return.

"People must have a greater sense of ownership when it comes to foreign policy," he added.

Mr Cherdchai cited the government's role in procuring coronavirus vaccines from international manufacturers as an example.

The mass rollout of Covid-19 vaccines in developed nations has given humanity a glimmer of hope, but it has also sparked concerns that some countries, especially developing ones, will be left behind when the vaccines become available for the masses.

To prevent such a scenario, the government is cooperating with the British-Swedish drug firm AstraZeneca, as well as manufacturers in China, Germany, India and Russia.

On Nov 27, the government signed an advance deal with AstraZeneca to secure 26 million doses and transfer local production technology to Siam Bioscience.

The vaccine, a collaboration between AstraZeneca and Oxford University, is likely to become available to Thais by mid-2021.

The government has also supported the World Health Organisation's Covax Project to pool resources for Covid-19 vaccines and treatment. It will contribute US$100,000 (about 3 million baht) to the global project.

Mr Cherdchai said the rate of vaccine distribution over the next 3-6 months will determine the pace of a country's economic recovery.

"A country that can distribute vaccines more quickly and thoroughly will recover faster. As such the question now is whether we can access enough vaccine -- or produce our own -- quickly enough to cover the population," he said.

"In addition, we must monitor vaccine distribution in neighbouring countries because a surge of Covid-19 cases will undoubtedly affect the flow of migrant workers.

"Take the latest outbreak in Samut Sakhon as an example."

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