News analysis

Thailand slips deeper into China's embrace

Beijing's naval aid plus treatment of Chinese dissidents in Kingdom leave some uneasy

Thailand's navy wants to buy a submarine - and China's offer looks tempting. It is not only cheaper than the rest, but reportedly includes technology transfer and training. That, in a nutshell, describes the kind of friendship that China extends to the Thai military government now - a relationship smoothed by appealing deals unattached to the political doctrines championed by much of the Western world.

Work on the Sino-Thai railway project that will give the trans-Asian rail network a sea outlet broke ground last December.

Chinese and Thai air forces held their first joint exercise last year, shortly after Thailand received a visit from the vice-chairman of China's powerful Central Military Commission.

Yet Thailand's leaning towards China has not been without hiccups. And some analysts see its recent overtures towards Russia as a way of trying to counter-balance the growing Chinese clout within the Kingdom.

"We do not put all our eggs in the same basket," says Dr Kitti Prasirtsuk, who heads the Institute of East Asian Studies at Thammasat University. "We like to diversify our ties with major powers."

Dr Panitan Wattanayagorn, an adviser to Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan on security matters, insists that Thailand is merely "readjusting" rather than "rebalancing" its position according to its needs, as it has always done.

"The complex engagement for Thailand means that our relationships with China, US, Japan, even with Russia, are mutually beneficial," he says. While Thailand will not accept any foreign military bases on its soil, "exercising, working together, landing and taking off (planes) based on our agreement, using our military bases, are quite welcome", he says.

Hearing that the Thai navy is shopping for a submarine, China has made an offer that is not only cheaper than others', but also reportedly includes technology transfer and training thrown in as well. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

While Bangkok has kept pace with its official exchanges with Beijing, it has also sent General Prawit and deputy premier Somkid Jatusripitak to Russia last month, ahead of a visit by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha in May.

Not that Bangkok's relations with Moscow are likely to rival its ties with Beijing. China is Thailand's top trade partner and major buyer of Thai rubber. It is also the biggest source of tourists in Asean's second-largest economy.

The Prayut administration is not the only one to have courted China. Thaksin Shinawatra, the self-exiled former prime minister reviled by supporters of this military government, visited China before the United States when he first came to power in 2001 and significantly expanded Sino-Thai trade and defence ties.

Dr Ian Storey from the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute has written about how Beijing, through its support for Thailand during the 1997 financial crisis, and its adroit engagement with each government thrown up by Thailand's political turbulence, demonstrated "to the Thai elite that China was a steadfast friend in times of crisis".

Yet some developments have exposed the challenges of closer Sino-Thai relations. For all the hype over the joint railway project, both sides have a difficult time agreeing on the interest rate on a soft loan China would grant for the work. As at two weeks ago, both sides had yet to finalise their respective shares in the joint venture.

Dr Kitti observes that the "mercantilist" flavour of the Chinese aid offered has surprised the Thai establishment, many of whom are assimilated descendants of former Chinese immigrants. "Even in the elite circles, the conventional perspective is that China is a good guy and a big brother," he says.

Meanwhile, the recent treatment of Chinese refugees and dissidents on Thai soil has also raised awkward questions for the Thai government.

Two Chinese refugees who were offered asylum in Canada were repatriated by Thailand unexpectedly in November. More recently, Gui Minhai, a publisher linked to books critical of Beijing, went missing from his seaside apartment in Pattaya last October, only to resurface in China under police custody.

Dissident Li Xin who vanished on his way from Thailand to Laos in January reappeared in China last month. Chinese exiles who previously found a safe haven in Thailand are now fearful, and tell reporters they are being followed by unidentified individuals.

Dr Panitan denies that Thailand has opened the door for Chinese agents on Thai soil.

"No country would allow that," he says. But the sheer numbers of foreign visitors make it hard for officials to keep close tabs on everyone's whereabouts, he adds.

Nearly 30 million visitors - including about eight million Chinese - entered Thailand last year.

Such denials are not likely to erase doubt as Thailand slips deeper into China's embrace. As recent events have shown, each "readjustment" of bilateral ties comes with its own unique hazards.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 07, 2016, with the headline Thailand slips deeper into China's embrace. Subscribe