Srettha hopes for resumption of panda diplomacy
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Srettha hopes for resumption of panda diplomacy

China urges faster progress in billion-dollar railway link to Thailand

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin welcomes Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at Government House on Monday, the last leg of his four-day visit to Thailand. (Photo: Government House)
Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin welcomes Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at Government House on Monday, the last leg of his four-day visit to Thailand. (Photo: Government House)

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin expressed hopes China will soon send another giant panda to Thailand, following the death of crowd favourite Lin Hui, as the two countries agreed to accelerate work on the long-delayed railway link through Laos.

Mr Srettha said on Monday that  Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi supported his request to send a replacement panda to Thailand.

The prime minister said the giant pandas were symbolic of the warm bilateral ties between the two countries, which went back almost 50 years.

"Thailand does not have a panda. But the absence of pandas does not truly mirror our close diplomatic relations with China over the past 50 years," he said after meeting with the Chinese minister at Government House in Bangkok.

Chiang Mai Zoo previously hosted two giant pandas, which became immediate stars after their arrival in 2003 as goodwill ambassadors. Xuang Xuang died in 2019 and his partner, Lin Hui, died last year.

Mr Wang's visit was due to end on Monday. It was highlighted by the signing of a mutual visa-waiver agreement, which allows Thai and Chinese passport holders visa-free entry for 30 days, effective from March 1.

The Chinese minister said China and Thailand must accelerate the construction of a planned high-speed railway linking the countries, pushing an ambitious Southeast Asian network.

Mr Wang did not spell out a time-frame, but the government currently expects the 873-km section in Thailand to be up and running in 2028.

Under the Belt and Road initiative, a global trade and infrastructure plan championed by Chinese President Xi Jinping, Beijing has pushed for a high-speed railway network that links the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming to as far south as Singapore.

The plan involves three routes originating in Kunming passing through Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam then joining in Bangkok. Construction of the section in Thailand - seen by some as a "fiscal trap" - has been delayed in recent years for reasons ranging from cost-sharing to Covid-19.

Thailand and China must promote the early implementation of the China-Laos-Thailand connectivity concept, the Chinese Foreign Ministry cited Mr Wang as telling the prime minister.

According to Thailand, construction of the first phase from Bangkok to Nakhon Ratchasima is over 15% complete, and should be operational by 2027. The second leg should be ready by 2028.

The Thailand section was delayed in 2016 when Bangkok rejected Chinese financing due to what it said were high interest rates.

It later agreed to shoulder the entire construction cost of 179 billion baht for the 252-km first phase, with China responsible for installing systems, design, and procurement of trains.

The second phase is to connect Nakhon Ratchasima to Nong Khai.

The outlook for the section connecting Bangkok with Malaysia and Singapore remains unclear after Kuala Lumpur halted the plan previously.

The Chinese minister sent the same message on Sunday, saying after meeting with Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara that the two countries should make progress on the rail project, which is under the Belt and Road Initiative, according to Xinhua.

Thailand and Laos agreed to extend railroad services from Thanaleng, the Lao border town opposite Nong Khai, to Khamsavath, a new station in southern Vientiane.

Then-prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and the Chinese presient agreed last year to celebrate the golden jubilee of diplomatic ties with numerous activities next year.

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