Engagement key to Sino-Thai ties
Gone are the days when policymakers could sit back and relax to watch Sino-Thai relations moving ahead in autopilot mode. These days, Thailand and China have to intensify mutual engagement and consultation at all levels to ensure there is no room for misunderstandings that could lead to diplomatic wrangles.
Last week, both countries commemorated the 45th anniversary of their diplomatic relations. Messages from Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai to Premier Li Keqiang and State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi made it clear that relations are rock-solid as they continued to say zhong-tai yi jia qin, meaning "Thailand and China are family".
However, while this family is getting stronger by the day, ties within it are getting more complex and sophisticated. They have to overcome common new challenges -- visible or invisible -- as they move towards a post-Covid-19 world and new expectations.
Over the past six months during the pandemic, the two countries set a new path for closer cooperation in public healthcare and raised the importance of health on their bilateral agenda. Both sides reiterated their determination to promote high-quality Belt and Road cooperation and vowed to continue efforts to rejuvenate the economy and boost sustainable development in the region. Both Gen Prayut and Mr Li also pledged to further elevate the Comprehensive Strategic Cooperation Partnership to "new heights and frontiers".
Indeed -- apart from the oft-quoted reference about the 3,000-fold increase in bilateral trade since 1975 -- in the past decade, significant new developments in the Sino-Thai cooperation are highly visible, both in security and strategic matters, as well as in people-to-people and cultural exchanges.
Six years ago, Thailand adopted a new national security strategy and decided to diversify its sources of arms procurements, instead of depending solely on the United States. Purchases of Chinese submarines and other weapons systems reflect the shifting attitude of the Thai military on the global security environment. While most US allies have rejected Huawei's 5G technology due to security concerns and pressure from Washington, Thailand has embraced it. Furthermore, specialised exercises with China have also increased markedly, indicating mutual benefit and growing trust. Security cooperation has also increased with other East Asian countries including Japan, South Korea, as well as Asean.
Another phenomenon has been the ever-growing people-to-people and cultural exchanges, including through the media sector. Thailand has 16 Confucius Institutes -- the most in Asean. In 2013, Chinese visitors began to travel southward to mainland Southeast Asia. Last year, a total of 11 million Chinese tourists -- an average of 30,137 per day -- visited Thailand, representing the highest level of people-interaction of any Asian nation with China.
This has led to a new trend -- as the number of Chinese wanting to stay in Thailand increases, pockets of new Chinese communities have sprung up in major cities. These pockets are home to young, enthusiastic and entrepreneurial Chinese youths who see Thailand as a land of opportunities.
Education cooperation has also been strengthened. Thailand is a popular destination for Chinese students. Back in 1980, there were only three Chinese students enrolled in Bangkok, according to Professor Fu Zhengyou from Chulalongkorn University's Confucius Institute. Now, the figures have jumped to over 30,000 students throughout the country, while nearly one million Thais are currently studying putonghua, or standard Mandarin.
Because of Thailand's dwindling younger population, many universities in Thailand are struggling in the face of shrinking enrolments. Over the years, they have invited foreigners to invest in order to prevent bankruptcies. At present, investors from China have saved several universities and higher educational institutes in Bangkok and other provinces.
Another upward trend is the expansion of Chinese media in Thailand. These days Thai audiences can learn more about China and its international profile directly. According to the Department of Public Relations, there are 33 registered correspondents from eight Chinese media agencies in Thailand, including Xinhua News Agency, which offers a Thai-language news service, and People's Daily. Japan still has the highest numbers of correspondents here, totalling 175 from 21 agencies.
Recently, this zhong-tai family has come under strong pressure that would test the bond of their friendship. The intensifying US-China trade war that has now permeated all imaginable fields and the Covid-19 pandemic have further widened the Sino-US schism. Under these circumstances, it is extremely difficult for allies and friends of the two superpowers to position themselves in a balanced way.
Since President Donald Trump came to power, the US has been pressuring its friends to be more visible in supporting Washington's positions in all matters. Essentially, without saying the word, what the Trump administration is implying that it is the time for US allies to choose a side and pay back what the US has done for them. At this point, the US is widely perceived as a declining power, which has withdrawn from international commitments.
Within the Indo-Pacific, the five US allies -- Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand -- are under a lot of stress as they are all facing the same dilemma. On one hand, they depend on the US security umbrella, but on the other hand they also have extremely strong economic ties with China. Indeed, with the exception of Thailand, the four allies have all succumbed one way or another to Washington's wishes.
As is well-known, both Australia and Japan have been quite accommodating to the US demands. They are seen as the US' most trusted security partners, often taking up the front seats in Indo-Pacific forums to support US security policy and liberal democratic values.
With previous American administrations, Canberra was able to maintain foreign policy independence while doing economic transactions with China. But with Mr Trump's, that would be difficult to execute -- so when push come to shove, Canberra has to pick a side. So does Japan, which has to do the US' bidding on the ground, criticising China on democracy and human rights issues. Its stakes are even higher as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has a close personal rapport with Mr Trump, giving an extra layer of pressure. President Xi Jinping's planned visit to Japan has been delayed due to the Covid-19 outbreak but Tokyo's latest move has jeopardised prospects for a future visit.
South Korea wants to keep an equal distance between the US and China. President Moon Jae-in has used his personal rapport with Kim Jong-un to improve inter-Korean ties, much to the chagrin of the US. Seoul wants to ensure that Pyongyang will not abandon the ongoing peace process and dialogue. But Seoul's diplomatic overtures depend very much on Washington's acquiescence.
All things considered, this family has still a lot of in-house cleaning to do in the coming years. As we move towards the 50-year mark, there is an urgent need to bridge the gap between the young and older generation about Sino-Thai friendship. Otherwise, external influencers in all forms could break into the family's house and ransack its pillar. Foreign Minister Don stated succinctly that for stronger and harmonious Sino-Thai ties, they must be guided by "three Ms" -- mutual respect, mutual interest and mutual benefit.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.