Thailand’s position has moved strikingly from its stance in 2018 when General Prayut Chan ocha told Time Magazine that the kingdom’s key strategic partner was China. As China’s impatience begins to show concerning the stalled high-speed rail link connection between Thailand and China’s southern provinces via Laos, the kingdom has moved closer to the United States and also, of key significance, Japan.
Tensions in the Indo-Pacific between the United States and China are rising fast with a warning on Monday from the Chinese Foreign Minister of ‘ferocious storms’ if Beijing’s sovereignty over Taiwan is breached. This comes after weeks of intensive diplomatic activity with twin visits by both the US Secretary of State and the Chinese top diplomat to Bangkok with US envoy Anthony Blinken promising investment by American firms of ฿2.7 billion after Thailand signed a Memorandum of Understanding binding it to the US Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. The kingdom also signed a joint communiqué where both countries committed themselves to promote democracy and democratic principles in the development of the region.
As tensions between China and an alliance that is forming to counter and contain it led by the United States in the Indo-Pacific grow, Thailand is moving closer to a tipping point when it may have to decide which side it is on even as Bangkok continues to play its perfected diplomatic art of balancing and playing off competing powers to such an extent that it has given the kingdom new leverage with which to further its short term diplomatic and economic goals.
On Monday, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, speaking to the ASEAN secretariat in Jakarta Indonesia, lashed out at both the United States and Taiwan as he warned that any move to abandon or weaken the ‘One China’ principle by which Beijing wields theoretical sovereignty over the self-governing island, would lead to ‘dark clouds or even ferocious storms’.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi accuses the United States of using Taiwan to disrupt China’s advance in Asia
Mr Wang accused America of weaponising the Taiwan issue to ‘disrupt and contain China’s development’ in the region and the de facto authorities of Taiwan of not abiding by the ‘1992 consensus that reflects the One-China principle’ in a campaign to allow Taiwan to move towards independence.
It comes as China has again increased the number of combat aircraft carrying out intrusive sorties within Taiwan’s air space and Australia’s newly installed Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, at a press conference in Canberra on Monday, stoutly rejecting four demands made by Chinese authorities from his newly formed government.
‘We will stand up for Australia,’ declared Mr Albanese as he rejected the conditions laid down by Beijing.
Significant visit by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to Bangkok where two agreements were signed, one which commits Thailand to democracy
A visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Thailand on Sunday and the signing of a joint communiqué and Memorandum of Understanding on supply chains is a signal that Thailand is, in recent times, moving closer to the United States while maintaining its policy of neutrality and balancing its relationship between the two major powers.
The difference is that as rivalry intensifies in the Asia Pacific between China and the United States, Thailand has emerged along with Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia as a key player in this battle for influence over the region’s economic and geopolitical future.
US firms to invest ฿2.7 billion in Thailand
On Sunday, Mr Blinken announced that US firms have already pledged to invest $2.7 billion in projects linked with the participation by Thailand in the new American Indo-Pacific Economic Framework which Thailand signed up for following the ASEAN US Summit held in May in Washington DC where the US administration briefed Southeast Asian leaders of the bloc on the plan which involves bilateral trade and supply chain agreements between the United States and its key partners in Asia including Japan and South Korea.
On Sunday, Mr Blinken also told reporters that some of these investments include Bio-Circular-Green (BCG) initiatives.
He was speaking at a meeting with Thailand’s Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai where the two documents were signed.
He had earlier met with Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha at Government House where he headed first to pay a courtesy call.
Intense diplomatic activity with China and Thailand accused of giving legitimacy to the Myanmar junta
Mr Blinken flew in on Sunday from Bali in Indonesia where he attended the G20 meeting for foreign ministers.
There, he had a longer than anticipated talk with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi who was in Bangkok just 5 days earlier where he also met the Thai Prime Minister and Foreign Minister as the Chinese top diplomat toured Southeast Asia ahead of the summit on the holiday Indonesian island.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi had earlier participated with Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam at the 7th Mekong-Lancang Cooperation (MLC) Foreign Ministers’ meeting held in Bagan Myanmar which drew criticism from international human rights activists and supporters of the National Unity Government (NUG) in Myanmar despite calls from Mr Wang for the military junta in Myanmar to engage with the democratic forces in Thailand’s neighbouring country which is in the throes of an increasingly fierce civil war.
Last week, after that meeting, critics of the event said that it was staged and had attempted to give credibility to the military junta which finds it isolated from the international community and still not recognised by the United Nations.
Myanmar raised by Mr Blinken at last weekend’s meeting with Thailand’s Foreign Minister Don
The situation in Myanmar was raised by Secretary of State Mr Blinken during his meeting with Thailand’s Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai on Sunday when it was referred to in the context of the joint communiqué between the two countries which described democracy and democratic principles as ‘essential’ to the shared vision which Thailand and the United States have for the region.
‘Strong democratic institutions, independent civil society, and free and fair elections are central to this vision, allowing our respective societies to reach their full potential,’ the statement declared.
The US statesman also took the time to meet Thai-based youth representatives from Myanmar who are calling for tougher action by the international community against the junta which seized the reins of government on the 1st February 2021 after 10 years of an experiment with democracy.
At a press briefing following that meeting, Mr Blinken highlighted the growing friendship between Thailand and the United States with the kingdom being America’s first ally in the region, a relationship that goes back 190 years.
Thai American relationship goes back 190 years
Referring to Thailand, Mr Blinken said: ‘We have an ally and partner in the Indo-Pacific of such importance to us in a region that is shaping the trajectory of the 21st century, and it is doing that every single day.’
The official visit by the Secretary of State to Thailand comes after a visit by the US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin in mid-June in which Mr Austin reminded reporters that Thailand and the United States are military allies as well as having a long relationship with cooperation between Thai and US government agencies stretching back decades across a broad spectrum of activities from policing to health management and higher education.
Change from 2018 when Thai PM Prayut Chan ocha termed China as the ‘number one partner of Thailand’
The current engagement by Thailand with the United States is a long way from 2018 when Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha told Time Magazine that China was the country’s most important strategic partner.
‘China is the number one partner of Thailand along with other countries in the second and third place like the US and others,’ the Thai premier, back then represented as a military dictator, told Time reporters for a worldwide cover story.
This followed the 2014 coup in which General Prayut seized power and ushered in a deteriorated relationship with the White House under the Obama administration thereafter followed by a lack of engagement from the Trump administration until its latter years when efforts began to restore the superpower’s lost influence after the US-China trade war began in 2018.
US diplomatic activity in the Indo-Pacific region has ramped up sharply under the Biden administration
Under President Biden, the dynamics of US diplomatic activity in the region have been ramped up in response to rising tension between China and the United States, particularly over Taiwan.
Last week, when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited and held talks with both the PM, General Prayut and Foreign Minister Don, he paid particular emphasis to the stalled high-speed rail project designed to link China’s Yunnan province in the South of the country and Thailand through Laos.
Progress on the project, which is being funded by Thailand itself, has been glacial despite promises from the prime minister last Tuesday to undertake renewed efforts to make sure the project is completed on time.
Beijing promises to open an economic corridor as Foreign Minister says Chinese and Thais are siblings
Beijing has promised that if the rail link is completed, it will open an economic corridor linked to Thailand’s Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) with its economic development areas in southern China via Laos.
In a briefing after the meeting last Tuesday at Government House, the government spokesman, Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana, said that the Thai leader asked the foreign minister to help generate more investment by Chinese firms in Thailand’s flagship Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) project, particularly in relation the manufacturing of electric cars, while the Chinese envoy directed the talks towards eliminating obstacles that are holding up the rail project and even suggesting a three-way meeting with Laos at some point in the future.
China’s top diplomat reminded his hosts of the ties that bind the kingdom and its communist neighbour to the north, something also reflected in support for China among the kingdom’s business elite at this time.
‘The aim of building corresponds to the saying ‘China-Thailand are not strangers, but siblings’. It will make our relationship even stronger,’ Wang Yi declared. ‘I think the people of the two countries will believe in our attempt to develop closer ties.’
China appears to want to redirect trade away from shipping lanes to land routes through its territory
The Chinese foreign minister emphasised stronger engagement with Thailand regarding trade and in particular, the transportation of goods through the China Laos real connection both to China and onwards to European markets.
‘Our aim is to push forward logistics, trade and investment to develop these industries in all three countries,’ he outlined.
This was picked up on by Mr Sitthiphon Kruarattikan, the Director of the Berkeley Institute of East Asian Studies which is linked with Berkeley University in California, in an analysis of the meeting and the current state of affairs regarding Thailand’s relationship with China after the meeting last week.
He was being interviewed by the Bangkok Post newspaper.
Top expert detects frustration over the slow pace of progress on the Thai Chinese high-speed rail link
Mr Sitthiphon detected frustration from China at the lack of progress on the Thai-Laos high-speed rail link describing it as critical to Beijing’s signature Belt and Road project to improve connectivity not only between China and Thailand but also between China and ASEAN.
‘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 outlined.
He highlighted China’s goal of reducing the region’s dependence on maritime channels of transport given the increased risk of a military conflict in the East and South China Seas.
He also interpreted remarks made by Mr Wang last week regarding Thailand’s hosting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in November when it called for a focus narrowly on economics.
China seeks Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit to focus narrowly on economics
He saw this as a subtle hint that China does not wish to see a broader agenda which may include disputes in the region which involve China or tensions over the war in Ukraine which is impacting every country worldwide.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov walked out of the G20 Foreign Ministers meeting in Bali this week amid widespread criticism of his country’s actions which have not been condemned by China which has repeatedly emphasised its close relationship with Russia including cooperation with Moscow on votes within the United Nations while Chinese propaganda outlets, state-controlled media and news agencies rebroadcast Moscow’s narrative.
Possibility of an outbreak of armed hostilities in the region may have to be confronted by Thailand
However, Mr Sitthiphon suggested that the time is coming when Thailand, as a key member of ASEAN, must confront the possibility of military conflict in the region and how it would react to such a situation even if it is not directly involved.
However, in the short term, Thailand’s traditional position of playing off both sides may work toward generating inward investment.
A key factor in this equation also is Japan, Thailand’s largest inward investor over many years which has also been forging closer ties with Thailand as well as the United States.
It is a key player in the alliance being developed to confront Beijing’s aggressive posture.
In early June, Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited Bangkok and signed a new defence cooperation pact with Thailand.
Thailand’s near-term focus remains firmly fixed on inward investment and trade to help recovery
In the near term, Thailand’s main priority, as with many other ASEAN bloc members, is an economic revival from the recent emergency.
Following Mr Wang’s visit last week, it was revealed that China, in terms of foreign investment proposals through the Board of Investment, represented Thailand’s second-largest investor with applications valued at ฿38.6 billion over 112 projects.
However, the number of applications from Japan was over twice as much at ฿80.7 billion across 178 projects with Singapore ranked third with pledged investments of ฿29.7 billion over 96 projects.
The projects involved were mostly in the traditional industrial sector that has been the mainstay of Thailand’s economy such as electronics and electronic appliances, petrochemicals and chemicals and the medical industry.
Thailand’s largest export market remains the United States at 14.5% or $35.5 billion followed by China at 12.4% or ฿30.2 billion and in third place Japan, at 9.55% or ฿23.2 billion.