Making the best out of Sino-Thai ties

Making the best out of Sino-Thai ties

"China is not invading any country - but rather, more people are embracing China," said Pinit Jarusombat, president of the Thai-Chinese Cultural Relationship Council. (Photo: Somchai Poomlard)

As the president of the Thai-Chinese Cultural Relationship Council (TCCRC), Pinit Jarusombat knows only too well how cultural exchanges can tie countries together. In an interview with MONGKOL BANGPRAPA, the former deputy prime minister shares his thoughts on the Chinese-US diplomatic relationship and trade tension, and how China's relationship with Thailand has been the tie that binds.

As the cultural council's president, what do you make of the US-Sino conflict and its impact on the region?

Friction surrounding trade and the South China Sea, the Covid-19 pandemic and vaccine diplomacy have had widespread effects on the region, with superpowers seeking to expand their spheres of influence by securing alliances, which undoubtedly has an impact of the Asean community. Even within the World Health Organization, aid in the form of vaccine relief, for example, is often politicised.

The recent centenary of China's Communist Party also marked a departure from the past, as Beijing is no longer under threat from the world's major powers. The successes it has seen has allowed China to expand its reach in both economic and scientific fields. The Chinese government is looking into ways to explore Mars and it has also managed to create an educated, socially-responsible and intelligent middle-class which can rival any superpower nation.

There's a Thai saying that when giants duke it out, smaller beings end up getting crushed. What's your take on it?

Thailand should try and turn a crisis into an opportunity, though we must do so carefully.

Ultimately, we shouldn't follow the path of a nation which in the past set up a military base in Thai territory, from which it launched offensives using highly-destructive chemical weapons against one of our neighbours.

Will China's ability to counter the United States' influence in Asean force the bloc to take sides?

I don't think any Asean members are picking sides between the two, as they consider bilateral relations a strategic tool which need to be approached with equality and respect. That said, each nation will carry out its own assessment of the circumstances, depending on their strengths and weaknesses.

Some countries may be closer to the US because of their long standing historical and/or trade relations. Other countries, meanwhile, may be more aligned with China because they share a common, physical border, which allows them to tap into China's growing market of some 800 million consumers with purchasing power.

These countries should not be considered China's lackeys or vassal states, but trading partners.

Thailand cannot deny its ties with China. We have deep-rooted similarities in terms of cultures, food and others. Thai agricultural products are also in high demand in China.

Will Thailand's close bond with China give it an advantage over other Asean nations?

Chinese leaders have never referred to other countries within the bloc as members of the same family, except Thailand.

Ancestry plays a big part in bringing the two countries closer together, as more Chinese migrants moved to Thailand than to any other countries in Asean. I believe this is the reason why both countries are quick to help one another in times of crisis -- China, for instance, sent vaccines and medical supplies to help Thailand during the Covid-19 pandemic, while Thailand has sent food, medicine and personnel to China for natural disaster operations.

How would this play out in trade and commerce?

Thai farm produce, such as durians, pomelos, bananas, mangosteens and rambutans and rubber, are in high demand in China. At the start of last year's durian season, for example, prices went up to around 155 baht a kilogramme. Now, prices are expected to hover around 97 baht/kg, which showed how even the pandemic can't dent China's appetite for the fruit.

Tourism between the two countries also grew in leaps and bounds pre-Covid. The Chinese spent the most money during their holidays here, compared to tourists from other countries.

There have been some changes in senior posts at the Chinese embassy in Bangkok. The embassy also recently countered negative perceptions surrounding its Sinovac vaccine. Is this an indication of a more hawkish approach?

We do have a new ambassador, who took up the post after his predecessor suffered a sudden illness, but changes to the officials' line-up are nothing new.

I believe China's priorities remain unchanged. The new ambassador is neither a hawk nor a dove -- he is toeing the Communist Party's line. And recently, China announced that it is committed to creating peace and harmony based on a sense of sharing, to reduce conflict and the risk of wars.

As one of the first Thais to speak with the new ambassador, Han Zhiqiang, how do you think he is different to his predecessor?

The council has spoken with him via Zoom, as it is customary for us to host such sessions for newly-appointed ambassadors. He seemed knowledgeable and competent, having been picked to serve many important diplomatic posts abroad, including Japan. He also took part in countless international briefings, as a member of a team working for a former Chinese foreign affairs minister.

Do you agree that China is hard-selling its soft-power campaign in the region to stem the US' influence?

Cultures cannot be imposed on communities or individuals. They can only be taken up when the culture in question offers benefits.

Cultures have spread throughout time, and China, with its thousand-year of history, has the advantage of being highly visible.

All over the world, people are now keen to take up Chinese languages, alongside English as a second language. For example, when we offered 80 scholarships to study in China, an unprecedented 480 people applied within the first two weeks of registration opening.

China is not invading any country -- but rather, more people are embracing China.

What can our businesses learn from the pandemic?

The focus should now be fixed on how to improve the quality of our tourism offerings, by ensuring value for money and safety.

Export standards should also be improved. Look at the example of Japan, where fruits are individually cleaned before they are exported. In the future, no Thai longans and durians carrying pests should end up being sold overseas.

We also need to educate our farmers about packaging and the authorities must act swiftly against contaminated goods. We must have a unit to ensure minimum standards are met, which would coordinate directly with China.

Chinese businesses should also be subject to more scrutiny. Those seeking permission to bring in goods that can be harmful to the environment must not be granted permission to invest. We shouldn't just let any business in.

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