Jockeying for leverage
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Jockeying for leverage

Geopolitical rivalry as Asean nears prompts high-level visits to region by US, China, with closer ties on offer

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha meets with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at  Government House on Tuesday. (Government House/Reuters photo)
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha meets with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at Government House on Tuesday. (Government House/Reuters photo)

A recent visit to Thailand by Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi as part of his two-week diplomatic mission comes as both nations mark the 10th anniversary of the China-Thailand strategic cooperative partnership.

The Bangkok Post has interviewed international affairs experts and Chinese studies academics about the next phase of Sino-Thai relations and Chinese-Asean relations under the framework of "Asean centrality".

Sharing their views on China's engagement with Thailand and the region, analysts expect to see more Chinese involvement and urge the government to keep an eye on the general meeting of the Communist Party of China (CPC) later this year, which will offer a glimpse into China's reopening policy which is pivotal to the kingdom's economic recovery.

Sitthiphon Kruarattikan, director of Institute of East Asian Studies and a professor of Interdisciplinary Studies Thammasat University, said the Chinese foreign minister's visit is connected to Beijing's rivalry with the United States.

The places Mr Wang visits are where China and Washington are competing for expanded partnership and cooperation as geopolitical tensions intensify, he said. Citing a Chinese media outlet, the People's Daily, he said China's diplomacy from the second quarter onwards will focus on Asia, Asean in particular, he said.

"It is evident that the visit is to gauge how these countries view their relationship with China and the US," he said.

However, China is unlikely to force any Asean country to side with it, he said.

Beijing needs to be assured the bloc does not see it as a threat, said the academic.

He said China appears frustrated about slow progress in a rail project supporting China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), given Mr Wang's remarks that China hopes to see an inter-country rail network linking Thailand, Laos and southern China materialise.

As long as the rail system in Thailand is not completed, China is unable to make full use of the China-Laos Railway which will further boost China-Asean connectivity and economic and trade cooperation, said Mr Sitthiphon.

"The talks about Thai-Lao-Chinese cooperation and Thailand's Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) imply that China wants the government to speed up and complete the rail link," he said.

Mr Sitthiphon said BRI will let China strengthen its international trade links and will be an alternative channel for the transport of goods. China is trying to reduce dependence on maritime infrastructure in the East China Sea where the risks of military conflicts are present.

He said Mr Wang's remarks that economic development and cooperation will be a key focus of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) meetings and summit to be hosted by Thailand also reveal China's expectations towards Thailand as host.

It is China's polite way of asking Thailand to avoid the summit issues sensitive to China like the South China Sea, Taiwan or the Ukraine-Russia war where China declined to openly criticise Russia, he said.

As a core member of Asean, the Thai government will be under pressure to respond and it must be prepared to act if a military conflict arises in the region even if Thailand is not party to the conflict, he said.

Asked when China will fully reopen the country, Mr Sitthiphon said the Chinese government is likely to lift restrictions in December after the CPC meeting which is expected to take place in October or November.

"The key factor is believed to be a political one as they don't want to disrupt the meeting. More easing of restrictions should follow during the New Year," he said.

Thailand's inclusion in Mr Wang's tour reflects the kingdom's diplomatic neutrality, said Piti Srisaengnam, director of academic affairs at Chulalongkorn University's Asean Studies Centre.

The country protects its interest by not choosing sides and trying to balance powers, which explains why top officials from China and the US have taken turns visiting the kingdom.

Prior to Mr Wang's visit, United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Bangkok for security talks. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled for a visit after his trip to Bali in Indonesia.

"The current global situation makes all of this happen," he said, referring to instability in Europe, the war in Ukraine and economic slump caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mr Piti said Thailand welcomed Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in May and Lao premier Phankham Viphavanh in June. At the Apec trade ministerial meeting the country held talks with Russia over bilateral trade and investment and a trade agreement the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).

Marking the 10th anniversary of China-Thailand comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership, both countries are likely to build strong and connected value chains for mutual benefits, he said.

In the face of trade barriers, China needs Thailand and Asean as its springboard for conducting trade in Europe and the US and the country wants to complete rail connections all the way through to Strait of Malacca, he said.

Thailand, at the same time, sees benefits from this type of economic relation. With a trade war and the Covid-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on the economy, the kingdom sees land connectivity as a means to return to global value chains, he said.

"The Laos-China railway should give us a nudge to speed up the rail network system," he said.

Mr Piti agreed with Mr Sitthiphon that China is likely to reopen the country after the CPC meeting and called on the government to keep an eye on any changes and make plans.

The Apec summit is likely to be a key issue in the Chinese foreign minister's trip to Thailand, says Panitan Wattanayagorn, a former Chulalongkorn University international relations lecturer.

He said there is nothing out of the ordinary for China or other countries to hold talks with Thailand to lobby over certain issues and discuss the framework of the summit ahead of the event.

The Apec meeting is drawing near but uncertainty remains over a number of issues including the war in Ukraine, he said.

Signs suggest China is readjusting its strategy and will use a forum like a Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) meeting to strengthen ties and cooperation, he said.

According to Mr Panitan, relations between Thailand and China are not as close as some might have thought and that is in part because the Thai government tries to maintain balance between China and the US.

Visits by top-level officials from both countries can be seen as their attempts to bridge a gap and engage Thailand and Asean in their strategic competition in the region, he said.

According to the analyst, competition between the two superpowers is intensifying considering their visits to Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia which are strategic locations in the region.

However, Mr Panitan said such visits will allow the government to discuss specific matters with them. Human trafficking, trade and weapons procurement are among topics to be raised with Washington while tourism and Myanmar are topics to be discussed with Beijing, he said.

Trade tension between China and the US, which started before the pandemic, has given other countries a scare and forced them to take things slowly, he said.

"Several countries made adjustments and sought alternatives. Thailand looked to Europe but the region doesn't look so great now," he said.

However, there are encouraging signs that the trade spat between the two economic giants may not escalate. If trends continue and if the Ukraine recovery programme manages to kick off, the global economy may pick up, according to the academic.

Virot Ali, a political scientist at Thammasat University, said Sino-Thai relations remain at a normal level but believed Beijing will try to further strengthen ties due to the US's Indo-Pacific strategy.

He said the Thai government may not accept it but Thailand is deemed as moving closer to the US, which remains the country's top trade partner and is trying to assert its influence in the region.

China will use shared economic benefits and investment as a tool in engaging Thailand and bolstering relations, he said.

According to Mr Virot, China faces a dual challenge: the United States' growing influence in the region and massive spending to implement its "zero-Covid" policy.

With the pandemic easing, China is expected to expand and deepen cooperation with the region including its Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which came into force in January 2022, he said.

RCEP, which groups the 10 Asean countries plus Japan, South Korea, China, Australia and New Zealand, is the world's largest Free Trade Agreement and represents 30% of the global GDP and population.

When asked about the country's balanced approach, the academic said ''maintaining good ties and actively engaging with all players will be more beneficial to Thailand''.

The current strategy is better than the one adopted by the military government after the 2014 coup and seen as leaning towards China, he said, but noted that it was partly because it relied on exports and tourism.

Mr Virot said he hopes the government will pursue more cooperation with all major powers, and as the host of Apec meeting it should make the best use of the opportunity to expand its role in the regional stage.

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