Is the Thai-Chinese railway a raw deal?

Is the Thai-Chinese railway a raw deal?

A boy at the Bang Pa-in station at Chiang Rak Noi in Ayutthaya looks at a model of part of the planned Thai-Chinese double-track railway network to the North and Northeast. (Photo by Chanat Katanyu)
A boy at the Bang Pa-in station at Chiang Rak Noi in Ayutthaya looks at a model of part of the planned Thai-Chinese double-track railway network to the North and Northeast. (Photo by Chanat Katanyu)

Despite repeated assurances to the contrary from the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the planned Thai-Chinese high-speed rail continues to attract scepticism. The government's explanation does not add up. Instead, it exposes the weaknesses and ill-effects of using unchecked power under Section 44 of the coup-sanctioned interim constitution, which is somehow allowed under the 2017 charter. In the longer term, the Thai-Chinese railway may end up being a raw deal for Thailand, and many Thais may not look back favourably toward China for it.

First, it is evident yet again that absolute power yields relative costs and benefits. Every time Prime Minister Prayut invokes Section 44, he is putting Thailand's public interest at stake without accountability. Absolute rule sounds appealing superficially but ends up being detrimental in practice. To be fully effective, Section 44 requires an enlightened and benevolent decision-making process and leadership. In practice, power operates amid contending interests and varying costs and benefits. If outcomes are relative and subject to cost and benefit, the power that leads to their decision should be vetted, checked and accountable.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

In the railway deal with the Chinese, the prime minister insists on pressing ahead without making a convincing case for it. The 256-kilometre, 179-billion-baht line connecting Bangkok to the hub of the Northeast in Nakhon Ratchasima is a shorter version of a previous proposal to construct a rail network linking Bangkok to Nong Khai on the Mekong River next to Laos.

The government has justified its hasty push for the new plan on the grounds that Thailand needs Chinese expertise, technology and equipment to make it happen. But this is a bogus argument. An open bidding process would be a better bet, and Thailand can end up with rail and train technologies from the best bid with the best value. Instead, opting for the Chinese plan is poised to violate a slew of Thai laws and undermine the government's own "good governance" agenda.

To be sure, there is a compelling argument that can be made for the Chinese rail deal but the government is not making it. If Thai-Chinese rail connectivity is necessary, its case surely lies in the growing development of mainland Southeast Asia. Rail can be a game changer by connecting Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam with Yunnan and Guangxi provinces in southern China. It would integrate the countries of the Greater Mekong Subregion, and render Thailand a natural hub for a 333-million-strong market with a combined US$1.2 trillion GDP. In addition, the development of mainland Southeast Asia can be integrated with China's Silk Road-inspired Belt and Road Initiative. This Greater Mekong space, in other words, can be Thailand's rice bowl for the next two decades.

But that is not what the Prayut government has been telling the public. The government insists the deal is imperative because Thailand lacks technology and know-how, and thus we must allow Chinese engineers and architects to do it for us. The government has even persuaded local interests to go along, namely the Architects Council of Thailand, the Council of Engineers, and the Engineering Institute of Thailand. But that is beside the point. Even if the adversely affected Thai professionals are pacified, it is the public interest that counts much more.

Worse, it is as yet unclear whether the Chinese will have land-lease rights over and around the rail network. Nor do we know for certain to what extent Chinese labour will be involved. If there are flaws, defects and mistakes before, during and after construction, can we hold the Chinese accountable or do they just go home and leave us to deal with the leftover mess? This is supposed to be a government-to-government deal but we have yet to hear about the Chinese state counterparty. Even small matters like language are significant. Will the language for the entire deal be in Chinese or English? We don't expect it to be in Thai, but English would enable Thai officials and technicians to better deal with eventual problems and challenges.

The Prayut government is lucky because the Thai media is weak. Despite the government's constant complaints about Thai journalists' pestering questions and scrutiny, Thailand's press and TV have generally taken government views from government officials without digging and muckraking alternative sources of facts. In this case, easy investigative journalism would be to delve into and press for Chinese views on the deal. Is what the Thai government saying about this deal true? Ask the Chinese, ask the Japanese, ask anyone who is not a Thai official to get to the truth because we are not short of government viewpoints.

Prime Minister Prayut's timing and rush to ink and implement the deal somehow leads to geopolitical suspicions. Perhaps the fact that he was one of three Asean leaders who were not present at China's grandiose Belt and Road Forum last May has something to do with it. Surely the fact that the upcoming BRICS summit in Xiamen this September, when Gen Prayut is slated to be among the attending leaders, must be an incentive to show bilateral rail progress before he meets with President Xi Jinping in person.

Whatever the true motives, the Thai-Chinese rail sounds like a raw deal. It smells like a geopolitical concession just to win over and seek succour from an authoritarian superpower when Thailand's own house is in a big undemocratic mess. If this is not the case, the Prayut government must do a better job rationalising the deal. Thai journalists and the public at large should also do what they can to ensure we don't end up with a bad deal that our future generations will be stuck with.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

A PROFESSOR AT CHULALONGKORN UNIVERSITY

A professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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