US ambassador Michael DeSombre raised concerns about China’s actions on the Mekong river and failure to control the flow of drug precursor substances for illicit drugs into the Golden Triangle. He highlighted the near 200-year friendship and co-operation between Thailand and the US particularly on health care and the economic opportunity for Thailand as firms move production away from China.

The deterioration in the relationship between China and the United States has been pronounced in recent weeks and is becoming a growing cause of concern not just for Thailand but countries throughout the region. This week, the United States ambassador to Thailand following a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam, did not even attempt to gloss over the differences but instead made the case strongly that Thailand has a better friend in its western partner than the one closer to hand and north of its border.

The US ambassador gave an eye-opening interview this week to The Nation newspaper in Bangkok which left no one in any doubt about the state of the US-China relationship. The ambassador touched on a range of controversial issues that involve Thailand and asserted that the United States was a better friend to the kingdom than the emerging power which has begun to make ominous noises after being unsettled by the Ccoronavirus pandemic and what is coming in its aftermath.

The American Ambassador set out his stall this week in a free-ranging interview with The Nation newspaper in Bangkok and asserted that the United States is a ‘better’ friend to Thailand as tensions ramp up between the superpower and Communist China.

Michael DeSombre, who met the Thai Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam also this week on a courtesy call where the state of emergency and fight against the Covid 19 virus was discussed, said that the administration of US President Donald Trump was simply tackling issues that the previous American administration had swept under the carpet.

US seeing China in its true light

In a robust assessment of the spat between the powers, he said that America was beginning to see China in its true light and not as the world hoped it would be.

The American envoy, a former trade lawyer with extensive experience of working and living in Asia, did not shy away from the problems that exist and which are mounting in the US-China relationship.

‘So, we see challenges coming out of China and are addressing them directly. Obviously, that creates more tension, instead of ignoring the problems that have been created by the previous administration,’ he said. 

Countries in Southeast Asia do not have to choose sides but America is a better friend to Thailand

The envoy was at pains to emphasise that this did not mean that countries in Southeast Asia had to choose sides between the powers.

This was nearly verbatim what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in Bangkok at the beginning of August 2019 during an Asean Summit when tensions between the two rival powers were also extremely high.  

‘But at the end of the day, we are not asking anyone to choose between the US and China,’ he said.

However, just as Secretary of State Pompeo did last August, Mr DeSombre highlighted his concerns about China’s activities on the Mekong River and what is also certainly rising tension on the South China Sea where Chinese naval vessels in early April rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel near the disputed Paracel Islands.

He made the point that, demonstrably, the United States was a better friend to the kingdom than its close neighbour to the north.

‘And as I said, we view ourselves as a better friend – if you want to be friends with other countries, with China, that’s fine. But we view ourselves as a better friend and will continue to demonstrate that particularly here in Thailand,’ he said.

Ambassador highlighted the deep cooperation stretching back centuries between Thailand and the US on health care so relevant today

Mr DeSombre wrote an extended article which was published in the Thai Rath newspaper in April which gives some fascinating background into the depth and level of co-operation that has existed between Thailand and the United States dating back nearly 200 years and specifically related to health care efforts.

One of the remarkable things to emerge from this pandemic is the impressive performance of Thailand and its health care system in managing and limiting the impact and casualties among the country’s population. 

To those who are cynical about this claim, one only has to look at Thailand’s exemplary performance in fighting off the HIV Aids threat decades ago to appreciate that Thailand as a particular ability to deal with such situations.

Some of this can be traced back to a long history of cooperation between the American government and its Centre of Disease Control and the Ministry of Public Health.

White House Covid 19 co-ordinator Dr Deborah Birx worked on 2003 Aids vaccine project with Thailand 

Aside from the US provision of $133 million to Thailand’s healthcare system over four decades and US training for Thai medical practitioners, the ambassador highlighted the history of the US Armed Forces Research Institute of Medical Sciences (AFRIMS) which resulted from medical collaboration at the time between the United States and the Royal Thai Army in 1963.

The ambassador highlighted his point by referring to the groundbreaking research between the US Army and the Thai Ministry of Public Health in 2003 in the development of an Aids vaccine. 

He pointed out that the US Army representative, at that time, was Dr Deborah Birx who is now a recognisable face in the United States as she is the coordinator of the White House task force in fighting the Covid 19 threat.

Chinese leader this week called on the Chinese armed forces to be prepared for war at this time of tensions

The relationship between the United States and China was further damaged this week after a Chinese Communist Party-controlled assembly passed a security law which impinges on Hong Kong’s independent status and the Chinese leader Xi Jinping called on the Chinese army to prepare itself for war. 

The huge nation, with the largest armed forces on earth, appears to be rattled by the war of words emanating from Washington and the genuine international concern about the origin of the Covid 19 virus which has undermined confidence in China.

The former UK Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, this week, described the Chinese leader as nervous about the future of the Communist Party and described the Chinese government’s actions in Hong Kong as ‘thuggish’ as he warned that Hong Kong’s enviable position as a world financial hub is now at risk.

The American ambassador, speaking in Bangkok this week, appeared to be very realistic about the future. He did not rule out the prospect of cooperating with China but did not strike an optimistic note.

‘We look forward to China increasing the number of areas where we do have common ground,’ he said but then added. ‘Unfortunately, that’s not happening much. But we are encouraging them to do so.’

Diplomat rejected outright any suggestion that Trump is playing politics on China as he seeks reelection

The ambassador rejected outright any suggestion that the US administration was playing politics with the US-China relationship in the run-up to the November election stateside. 

‘You should ask China whether the presidential election had anything to do with their decision to suddenly impose the national security law in Hong Kong. That is their choice, not ours,’ DeSombre said. ‘Also, I think various activities in the South China Sea, such as militarising islands, sinking Vietnamese fishing vessels among others, those were not our decisions.’

Still hopes that Phase 1 trade deal is honoured

The ambassador indicated that the United States was still holding out hope that China would keep its commitment to the Phase 1 trade deal signed between the two countries earlier on in the year before the Covid 19 virus emergency broke out.

‘We hope they will live up to their agreement,’ the US Ambassador said. ‘I think President Trump has made clear the steps we expect China to take to implement the phase one deal. If they don’t, it will be very disappointing.’

Investment potential for US firms moving operations to Thailand highlighted by Ambassador DeSombre

Ambassador DeSombre, echoing the message he stressed when he first met Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha in early April and talked about a more ‘proactive’ business relationship between Thailand and the US, suggested that many US firms were interested in moving production into Thailand.

He particularly identified firms involved in defence and advanced materials as being potentially interested in establishing in the kingdom.

He said Thailand had the potential because of its location and relative stability to be a favourite choice for US firms after one company chose it based on 10 key metrics for its Asian base.

‘There is one advanced materials company that I have spoken to recently. They recently conducted a large review on where they should base their manufacturing unit in Asia. They reviewed 24 countries based on 10 different metrics, which showed that Thailand is the place to base its first Asian manufacturing unit,’ he disclosed.

Figures from the Thai Board of Trade in relation to projects that were approved in the first quarter of 2020 currently show 11 US projects with a total investment of ฿2.2 billion. 

On the other hand, in the same period, Chinese firms were approved for an investment of ฿29.4 billion with 51 projects followed by Japan with 57 projects with a projected investment of ฿16.8 billion.

The United States was only ranked 5th in the table behind Taiwan and Singapore.

However, it is important to note that these figures are for projects which sought approval based on attractive investment incentives touted by the Thai government and do not represent the actual level of inward investment.

In 2018, Thailand’s largest inward investment partners were Japan and Singapore accounting for just over half the value of such inflows.

Growing concern over the Mekong River situation and China’s 11 major dams upriver in control

America’s top diplomat also squarely addressed the problem with China’s dam-building programme on the Mekong River.

‘One area that we see some concerns about is China’s actions that are contributing to drought here in Thailand, such as controlling the flow of water in the Mekong River,’ he pointed out.

This is an escalating problem with the spectre of drought and floods severely affecting farming and livelihoods on the plain of the Mekong River sharply in recent years.

Thai farmers and environmentalists have become increasingly concerned about the repeated instances of extended drought caused along the Mekong River plain.

The threat from Chinese dam building on the river was identified decades ago and Thailand, along with a number of other Southeast Asian countries including Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, set up the Mekong River Commission to manage the river and monitor its condition.

The growing impact of the Chinese upriver dams, of which there are now 11 major installations, has long been denied by Chinese authorities.

They blame the increasing pattern of drought and hardship along the river’s banks in other countries including Thailand, on climate change alongside other weather events.

Up until recently, such a response has been hard to disprove. China has refused to cooperate with international bodies or give data on the operation of its dams and water conditions upriver classifying such information as a state secret.

April’s Eye on Earth study puts it up to Mekong river countries and points the finger at China

However, an international body, Eye on Earth, has recently published an update covering 2019 which shows compelling evidence that where last year there was a drought along the lower regions of the Mekong, there should have been an abundance of water as there was considerable ice melt in the upper regions of the river in the Himalayas. 

The detailed and elaborate study shows clearly that in the upper region of the river in China, there was excess water while on the main stretch of the river in Thailand and Laos, the river was parched with a devastating effect on fisheries and normal day to day life of up to 23 million Thai people from June until December last year.

The impact was so severe that fish were unable to swim to their normal spawning grounds.

Thailand was somewhat lucky last year to experience timely rainfall in August which saved its main crops.

Up to that point, rainmaking planes and water trucks had to be deployed to conserve what threatened to be a severely diminished crop.

This scare took place despite record rainfall levels in Southern China at the same time, the highest since 1961.

Data and analysis presented from satellite imagery and historical data is at least 89% accurate

Data and analysis provided by Eyes on Earth were prepared from satellite imagery provided by an American global satellite firm. The study attempted to physically measure the impact of the dams on the Mekong by using mathematical formulae as well as historical data compiled by the Mekong River Commission to produce a model that would be 89% accurate at predicting the levels and water flow of the Mekong river at various points.

The report was released in April and predictably was condemned by the Chinese government and the Communist Party.

2019 drought conditions were a perversion of nature caused by Chinese dams says in-depth report

The comprehensive analysis which not only shows that the Mekong River in Thailand suffered drought last year when it should have had above-average water flow, must at some point be addressed. 

The findings also suggest that Chinese dams upriver can contribute to increased flooding in a reversal of the process at other times of the year. 

This can result in the river having the capacity to rise by several meters overnight.

Ambassador also highlighted the Golden Triangle area as a source of Thailand’s drug woes and misery

This week, Ambassador DeSombre also brought up the question of Chinese soft power and influence in the Golden Triangle area between China, Thailand, Myanmar and Laos.

This  week DeSombre suggested that China was ‘failing to stop precursor chemicals from going to Myanmar, which is allowing massive production of methamphetamine, which is flowing into Thailand.’

This enclave that has, for generations now, been ruled by drug barons and warlords is thought to generate $45 to $90 billion a year in profits in illegal profits paid for by the misery and destruction caused to countless lives around the world and most especially in Thailand. 

China produces 100,000 tons per annum of the precursor chemical for methamphetamine

China is one of the world’s largest producers of the precursor chemicals needed to produce the deadly methamphetamine drugs that have been emanating from the centre with rapid acceleration witnessed since 2017.

The Communist Country produces 100,000 metric tons of acetic anhydride every year. This drug, of course, is also used for many legal purposes and legitimate products.

It is the key ingredient as well as hydrochloric acid and other base compounds in producing the deadly methamphetamine drug substances.

It is also believed that much of the produce from the area traverses the southern provinces of China before being shipped to other countries and indeed transported into Thailand. The same is true for other illicit products and industries such as diamonds and wildlife.

However, Thailand is also a transit country for the drugs being exported by the cartels worldwide.

Chinese authorities point to cooperation with other countries in fighting drugs and harsh punishments

Chinese authorities strenuously deny such inferences and point to their work and cooperation with police and authorities from other countries including Thailand to combat the flow of the drugs from the region including loads destined for China. 

Chinese authorities are well-known for the hard punishments handed out to convicted drug dealers including state execution.

Wherever the balance lies in this situation, it is safe to note that the illegal drugs trade and other illicit industries, with their tentacles and influence, are part of the overall picture when considering the standoff in the region between the world’s superpower and China as the emerging and challenging force.

Further reading:

Thailand’s economy has become dependent on government expenditure to stay above water

Industry boss urges Thailand to join alternative Pacific trade pact and plan for a long recovery from virus debacle

Thailand and US aim for a new more ‘proactive’ trading relationship as ambassador meets Prayuth

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

US election will impact investment and moves by US firms from China to Thailand says new American envoy

Thailand faces a third shock after the virus if high debt and the informal economy are not prioritised

MPs warned of an economic colony as opposition zeroed in on Thailand’s impaired relationship with China

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

US suspension of Thai preferential trade partner status part of Trump’s ongoing trade war