Xi's visit to Bangkok: East wind blowing
Thai government this week will welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping with three understandings at the forefront of its mind, namely that now is the Asian Century; that China is the undisputed leader; and that Thailand-China ties are consequential to peace and stability in the region. Thailand will do its utmost to further strengthen bilateral ties with China in anticipation of the 50th anniversary in 2025 and beyond.
In joint research completed recently by Thailand's National Defence College, one of four scenarios outlined has been taken up as the future geopolitical trend in the region. It forecasts that: nations are willingly jumping on China's bandwagon; that there is little likelihood of interstate wars; there is extensive economic and financial cooperation, deepening regionalism, and that the region and its people are growing incrementally; and that there is a stable political order with a hierarchical structure. That much was clear.
On the other hand, Thai strategists also offered the opposite scenario, which is bleak, titled "Cold War Redux", with an 85% possibility. It predicts the return of containment, the threat of global nuclear war, numerous nations choosing defence alliances with the US, great economic and financial disruption as globalisation sharply contracts, and a stagnant regional economy.
The remaining two scenarios -- dubbed "Nirvana" and "Home Alone", are not feasible. Indeed, the one titled "Nirvana" is too good to be true with all regional and global development in equilibrium for economic and security spectrums and without the prospect of interstate wars. The worse scenario titled "Home Alone" depicts the world in disarray with national survival at stake as interstate wars rage, arms races (both conventional and nuclear), and disruption of financial and economic transactions. In the next couple of days, Thailand will have first-hand experience with the Chinese leader to test its foresight.
Mr Xi's participation at the Asia-Pacific Economic Leaders Meeting (APLM) at the weekend is just timely as it reinforces the perception held by Thai strategists and policymakers about China's role and leadership.
It is notable that China joined Apec as its first regional economic engagement in 1991, which helped the country to open up, lowering the average tariff rate by 39.5% to about 7.4%. By 2020, China's trade with Apec members reached nearly US$3 trillion. China as the world's No.2 economic power can do a lot within the Apec framework. China has gained experience in utilising science and technology, especially related to sustainable development and the green economy. Such expertise will help Thailand to achieve its goals under the new economic model, known as the "Bio-Circular-Green Economy", or BCG, which is also enshrined in the APLM's key outcome documents.
That helps also to explain why Thailand was among the first countries to join the Group of Friends of Global Development Initiative (GDI) when Mr Xi raised the idea at the United Nations General Assembly last September. Indeed, Thailand's BCG shares the same key concepts as the GDI, dwelling on people-centred prosperity as well as balanced, sustainable, and inclusive growth. In addition, these objectives are also on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Due to the absence of US President Joe Biden, who chose to attend the wedding of his granddaughter at the White House this weekend, the most powerful Apec leader taking part in the summit in Bangkok will inevitably be President Xi. His visit this time, his first as head of state, to Thailand comes at a time when the global geo-strategic and economic landscape has shifted to Asia. As such, the international community is watching closely what Mr Xi will say and do during his Nov 17-19 visit to Thailand. He will be accompanied by his wife, Madame Peng Liyuan, who has developed a close rapport with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's wife, Naraporn, since their first meeting in 2014 during the Beijing-hosted Apec summit and has been maintaining personal contact. Mr Xi visited Bangkok as vice president in December 2011.
Fresh from the success of the 20th People's Congress last month, Mr Xi could use the Apec platform to give the world reassurance that China is open and will continue to engage the international community. When he reported to Congress on the last day, he said the world needs China, and vice versa. With 21 economies and their leaders in-person converging on Bangkok as the threat from the Covid-19 pandemic subsides, Mr Xi can reiterate this mantra, besides trade and investment issues, with a commitment to contributing to the global common good including strengthening multilateralism, fighting the climate crisis, and promoting economic recovery, food and health security, among others.
In Bangkok, Mr Xi is likely to send at least two clear messages to the global community. First and foremost, China has improved its economic engagement development and wants everybody to know that it is moving up to a high-quality economic model. China is a member of the Asean-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Beijing is also supportive of the planned Asia-Pacific Free Trade Agreement.
Second, China is ready to raise its international profile and influence so that it can play a greater role in global governance. In a nutshell, China is no longer a spectator. In Bangkok, Mr Xi is the right person in the right place at the right time. As China's re-elected leader for a third term, Mr Xi's legacy is at stake; everything he pursues will be scrutinised.
From the region's vantage points, while China's rise and more expansive global profile are welcomed, quite a few countries are concerned and very anxious about Beijing's new assertiveness. They hope that China will be able to mitigate and resolve current disputes or any possible hotspots with the parties concerned. If Beijing fails to address these concerns, countries in the region will have to seek extra outside support or form new alliances that could be detrimental to the bloc's solidarity as well as its ties with China.
After the APLM, Xi and Gen Prayut will have the opportunity to hold talks on 19 Nov. As both sides are commemorating the 10th anniversary of their comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership, Thailand and China are looking for ways to rejuvenate their bilateral relations. In the Chinese tradition, when relations reach 50 years, it is supposed to be "the period to know all about life" (wu shi zhi ming). That is to say, the Sino-Thai relationship has reached maturity and is ready to be further elevated to a higher level to face new challenges together. By that time, they hope to announce the establishment of a Thailand-China Community with a shared future for enhanced stability prosperity and sustainability. That would be the task of senior officials from the two countries. At present, Thailand and China have excellent cooperation in various areas of politics, security and investment as well as exchanges in terms of culture and technology.
However, one area that needs to be further enhanced is people-to-people, especially among youth- and community-based groups. In addition, there is an urgent need for Thais to have a better awareness, understanding, and appreciation of China's history and general affairs. Numerous seminars and discussions among Thai officials and business sectors have often pointed to the lack of a well-rounded and comprehensive understanding of China's thinking and traditions among Thai decision-makers and academia.
Currently, nearly 900,000 Thais are studying putonghua (Mandarin Chinese) at different levels, thanks to Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, who is very keen on the language and culture of China. However, there seem to be far fewer Thais taking up China as an area of academic study. Today, a mere handful of Thai scholars have an understanding of the Middle Kingdom. On the opposite side, Thai studies are taught at 49 universities in China, with thousands studying the Thai language.
It is also notable that before the outbreak of the pandemic, from 2013 to 2019, around 10 million Chinese tourists visited Thailand annually --translating into 30,000 people on average every day. With such intense contacts and interaction, it is incumbent on decision-makers to find ways to transform these people-to-people exchanges to become more fruitful, durable and mutually beneficial beyond photo-ops and package tours.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran jouralist on regional affairs.
A veteran journalist on regional affairs
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs
- Xi Jinping