BANGKOK: Criticism of Thailand’s relationship with China over the Mekong River was rebutted by the Foreign Affair Minister Don Pramudwinai who described the relationship between the two countries as ‘friends of equal standing’ in response to stinging critiques from the opposition benches. The government on Friday easily won the debate in parliament on a series of motions of no confidence motions tabled against individual ministers after a rift caused the main opposition party not to vote all.

The relationship between the Thai government and China was put under the spotlight in parliament this week as the opposition and government benches debated a motion of no confidence which was won handily by the government on Friday. At least two MPs claimed that the current government, by its actions towards China, is transforming Thailand into a Chinese vassal state. ‘People are saying that Thailand has already become a province of China,’ former Future Forward MP Ekkapob Pianpises told the house while Pheu Thai MP Saratsanun Unnopporn took aim at the giant Chinese firm Alibaba declaring that it is seeking to establish an economic colony in Thailand.

The government of Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha (inset centre) and various ministers fielded trenchant criticism as the house debated motions of no confidence this week. An unexpected focus of criticism came after opposition MPs attacked the record of the Thai government in the country’s growing relationships with China and the activities of empowered large Chinese firms and operators in Thailand adversely affecting Thai firms and nationals economically. Two of the most outspoken MPs were Ekkapob Pianpises from Chiang Rai (right), tipped to form a new party shortly from the remnants of the now-dissolved Future Forward Party and Khon Kaen MP Saratsanun Unnopporn of Pheu Thai (right).

The intense debate in Thailand’s House of Representatives in the last few days saw the opposition focus on the kingdom’s growing alignment towards China under the present government and that of junta led administration since 2014.

One of two MPs within the now-dissolved Future Forward Party tipped to lead MPs from that now-defunct party into a new political grouping is Ekkapob Pianpises, an MP from Chiang Rai in northern Thailand.

‘People are saying that Thailand has already become a province of China’ – the MP told the house

This week, he left the government in no doubt as to his views on what he sees as the pernicious influence of the communist country and emerging superpower on Thailand as its flexes its newly found military might and economic muscle.

‘People are saying that Thailand has already become a province of China,’ he told the House of Representatives. He went further and explained across a range of issues his concerns about China’s negative influence on the country.

Chinese apartment buyers and owners in Bangkok

One area was the influx of Chinese condominium buyers into the property market in Bangkok and other centres before the January coronavirus outbreak which is reported to have seen foreign buyers, mainly Chinese, disappear leaving 100,000 residential units empty.

Some observers have even linked the influx of Chinese cash being transferred across its northern border as a factor, albeit a minor one, in the hitherto uncontrollable rise of the Thai baht throughout 2019.

Chinese investors have left Thai nationals renting

However, Mr Ekkapob Pianpises on Tuesday focused on the number of Chinese buyers who he claimed had driven up prices by as much as 17% and in turn, were then leasing and renting the units to Chinese tenants or visitors and after that, repatriating the money back to China.

‘The condominium price index went up 17 per cent,’ he revealed. ‘Allowing condo prices to go up like this turns potential Thai buyers into renters instead.’

Concerns about market manipulation by Chinese firms exploiting Thai fruit farmers on price

The MP also raised his concerns about the market for Longan fruit in Thailand. He claimed that it is being manipulated by Chinese firms who have established control over the price being paid to Thai farmers.

Mr Ekkapob referred to the export market for the fruit being strong with prices of up to ฿35 per kg but nevertheless, Thai farmers are being forced to sell their products to Chinese firms for ฿13 because they simply do not have the collective power to negotiate a higher price.

 The Future Forward MP said that there were similar issues with the pineapple, mango and durian markets which require that the Thai government take action to protect Thai farmers from commercial exploitation.

Thorny issue of the Mekong river

The up and coming MP also raised the thorny issue of the Mekong River which is now effectively controlled by the Chinese government who can apparently raise and lower water levels of the river on command because of a vast dam network in China controlling the water flows.

It is a problem that previous Thai administrations had been acutely aware of and one that was highlighted by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on a visit to Thailand last July.

Thai authorities must beg for water from China to be released into the river says Chiang Rai MP

This week, Mr Ekkapob lashed into Thailand’s current ministry for having to beg Chinese authorities to allow more water into the river to alleviate the effects of the drought on hard-pressed Thai farmers suffering in part from the effects of the extensive dam-building projects up river which has transformed the once-mighty Mekong river into now being effectively and primarily a source of electricity power for China and its energy-hungry industries.

Thailand an ‘ant compared to a lion’

‘Prayut knows what’s happening, but he doesn’t dare do anything because as he said, we are like the ant,’ he told the house this week.

He was referring to a candid admission made by the Thai prime minister when he entertained the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang last November. At the time, the Thai PM General Prayut Chan ocha observed that sometimes an ant can also be helpful to a lion.

It was a characterisation of the relationship that raised eyebrows and drew some criticism even though it may have been simply a polite expression of humility towards a guest.

Claims rejected by the Thai Foreign Affairs Minister

Mr Ekkapob’s characterisation of the Thai Chinese relationships was disputed in parliament this week by Thailand’s Foreign Affairs Minister Don Pramudwinai at least in relation to the Mekong river issue.

Mr Don explained that he had visited Beijing in January to discuss the Mekong river situation and that there was ‘no begging’ involved in those discussions. He revealed that Beijing authorities had acquiesced to Thailand’s request within 24 hours of discussion on that occasion.

He characterized the relationship between Thailand and China as ‘friends of equal standing’ when he addressed MPs.

High-speed rail project under the magnifying glass

The long-discussed negotiations with China over a proposed high-speed rail link were also put under the magnifying glass by sharp-eyed opposition MP.

Mr Ekkapob attacked the ongoing discussions and proposed contracts for several high-speed rail projects linking Thailand with China’s belt and road project.

The United States under US President Donald Trump has since 2018 come to be highly wary of this Chinese initiative viewing it now as a predatory policy.

Mr Ekakabnb pointed to the findings of a specially commissioned feasibility study in 2018 which disputed any benefit from such a project apart from strengthening Thai Chinese relations.

The MP was critical of the fact that the project had now become a private investment which may ultimately involve borrowing money from China for the undertaking that is projected to cost ฿200 billion.

The Japanese feasibility study on the rail link estimated the cost at ฿400 billion and concluded that it was a poor commercial investment.

Transport ministry said in January that a contract would be signed in February for first stage

Last month, before the catastrophic impact of the coronavirus outbreak, the Thai Transport Ministry indicated that it would sign the contract for the Bangkok and Nakhon Ratchasima part of the project worth ฿50 billion.

It indicated that it would be signed in February once approved by the cabinet. The signing of contracts for the project has been already deferred a number of times by the government towards the end of 2019.

Loan financing from China set in dollars, not baht

One of the conditions of the contract is reported to be that 80% of any loan, to finance the scheme from China, would be drawn down primarily in US dollars.

At the time, the anticipated rate would by ฿30.83 to the dollar but since then, the US dollar has gained to ฿31.60 but attained a high this week of ฿31.85.

Pheu Thai MP is scathing about concessions made to Chinese giant Ali Baba in Thailand

The Future Forward MP was not alone in attacking the relationship between the present government and China.

Opposition Pheu Thai MP Saratsanun Unnopporn, first elected to parliament in March 2019 but from a long political dynasty in Khon Kaen, attacked the government for its policy of tax breaks and incentives towards China’s Ali Baba, the giant online retailing group which effectively owns or controls the two largest players in the Thai market Lazada and Shopee.

‘Alibaba behaves like a representative of the Chinese government. It is seeking an economic colony,’ Ms Saratsanun told the House of Representatives. ‘I don’t know if the Prime Minister had good intentions towards Thai people, but it’s impossible that Alibaba is helping to revive the Thai economy.’

Chinese online retail firms have tax exemptions which disadvantage Thai competitors in online trade

Mr Ekkapob also raised this issue. He pointed out that Chinese firms have been granted a tax exemption for their online retailing arms established in Thailand which gave them an unfair advantage over smaller Thai firms who have to pay tax on goods imported at the point of entry.

Further reading:

Rice price spike but drought conditions to recede – security concern for the Mekong river

Chinese domination of Thailand’s e-commerce sector to grow further with the Eastern Economic Corridor

Thailand’s PM commits to a global world vision as the country signs up to China’s belt and road

Thailand and Hong Kong plot closer economic ties and free trade pact as the city is mired in political crisis

Economic threats the biggest challenge now for Prayut as he seeks to form new Thai government

Thai PM confirms China as Thailand’s ‘No.1 partner’

US China trade war may have some silver lining or upside for Thailand if firms can be agile and adjust