NONG KHAI, Thailand | A new arrival can easily see China’s unrelenting southern thrust along the Mekong River, where tall, fanciful Chinese buildings sprout nearby on the Laos side of this sleepy northern border city, evoking both hope and fear at Beijing’s influence and intent in Thailand.
A top CIA official’s recent visit to Bangkok, which came amid a spate of lucrative US military and business deals, could in the future tempt this longtime US ally to favor the US and not China, but the rivalry is increasing. to. And as elsewhere in the region, the pull of Chinese investment and markets is proving powerful.
“Thailand has been leaning towards China and away from the US for two decades,” said Benjamin Zawacki, the Bangkok-based American author of “Thailand: Shifting Ground Between the US and Rising China.”
“Militarily, relations with the US are arguably even deeper, but the gap is closing rapidly,” Zawacki said in an interview.
Many Thais celebrate their Chinese ancestry, which dates back 700 years, in contrast to the persecution they endured in Thailand during the US-led anti-communist purges in the mid-20th century.
Chinese schools, newspapers and other facilities in Thailand were forced to close during those years of racism and strong ideological polarization, as Thais of Chinese descent were accused of infidelity and subversion.
“Ancestors play a huge role in bringing the two countries closer together as more Chinese migrants moved to Thailand than to any other country” in Southeast Asia, said Pinit Jarusombat, chairman of the Thai-Chinese Cultural Relationship Council. former Deputy Prime Minister.
Thailand is valued by China in part because this rapidly modernizing Southeast Asian country has access near Bangkok to the Gulf of Thailand, which opens onto the South China Sea.
Beijing and Washington have clashed repeatedly over the South China Sea’s maritime borders, shipping routes, military access and the exploitation of natural resources.
The US Navy began training the Thai Royal Navy in anti-submarine warfare in 2019, despite the navy seeking to purchase three Chinese-built Yuan-class S26T submarines, each for $400 million.
“Any armed conflict in the region involving or directly involved with the US and China will develop against the power that the Maritime Plateau holds. The dynamics [about submarines] is the rivalry in action,” said Mr Zawacki.
Thai officials seem well aware of the balancing act they are trying to implement.
“Because we already have the first submarine [agreed upon], the second and third will have to follow, but it remains to be seen when,” Naval Chief Admiral Somprasong Nilsamai said earlier this month. Bangkok’s budget crisis due to COVID-19 could delay the three deliveries.
Belt and road
Here in Nong Khai, Thais hope to take advantage of a sleek $6 billion, 257-mile Chinese-built railway through Laos completed in December as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
The new route connects southern China’s Yunnan province with Vientiane, the capital of impoverished landlocked Laos, several miles upstream from Nong Khai.
Imports and exports using the Chinese train in Vientiane must be transferred by road across the Mekong Bridge to the Nong Khai railway line, where Thailand’s trains connect to Bangkok and elsewhere.
The railway from Laos to China “will likely make Thailand more economically dependent on Beijing, which itself will try to protect its geopolitical interests in Thailand,” said Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Thailand’s Naresuan University who focuses on international affairs. Bangkok’s military and foreign policy.
“Thailand has become a center of bipolar friction between the US and China,” Mr Chambers said in an interview.
To tighten relations, CIA Deputy Director David Cohen flew to Bangkok in November and met Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a retired army chief who seized power in a coup in 2014 and won the 2019 elections. Their closed-door meeting reportedly highlighted Thailand’s politics, economy and regional security.
Ford Motor Co. announced in December that it would invest $900 million to upgrade its car assembly plants in Thailand.
Other US companies also pledged new investment, and America remains Thailand’s largest export market.
“Since the Biden administration took office, the US has reached out to maintain a close dialogue with its Thai counterparts,” said Tanee Sangrat, spokesman for Thailand’s foreign ministry. “The country has not been bypassed by the US”
On the other hand, Thailand is enthusiastically integrating China’s Huawei 5G telecommunications systems, including smartphones, cloud computing, fiber infrastructure, medical services and artificial intelligence. Both the Trump and Biden administrations have pressured allies around the world not to use Huawei in their networks, citing what they believe are the company’s shady ties to the communist regime’s military and intelligence services.
“I am deeply impressed by Huawei’s history and dedication,” Prime Minister Prayuth said.
And in the battle for influence here between China and the US, the recent Taliban victory in Afghanistan after a hasty and chaotic US withdrawal had a knock-on effect in Thailand as well.
“Many Thai senior security officials were disappointed that the US would leave Afghanistan and give up an ally,” Mr Chambers said.
“But,” he noted, “by leaving Afghanistan, Washington is paying more attention to East Asia and China, and may be able to provide more military aid to Thailand. That’s something Thailand loves.”
For example, Thai air chief Marshal Napadej Dhupatemiya wants to buy eight Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighters to replace aging F-15s and F-16s.
“The F-35 aircraft are no longer out of range as the unit price has been reduced from $142 million to $82 million,” Marshal Napadej said on Jan. 4.
The Royal Thai Army is already waiting for the delivery of about 60 US-made Stryker armored personnel carriers – the type of vehicle the army used to crack down pro-democracy demonstrations in 2010, which killed nearly 100 people, mostly civilians.
Bangkok is a non-NATO treaty ally with Washington and was used to conduct US aerial bombardments and ground attacks against communist nationalists in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam War.
Ghosts of that bloodshed still haunt relationships.
“We must not follow the path of a nation” [the U.S.] which in the past has set up a military base on Thai territory, from which it launched offensives,” Mr Pinit of the Thai-Chinese Cultural Council told the Bangkok Post.
China, he added, “is not invading any country, but rather more people are embracing China.”
A new generation of Thais is also being taught about the US-China rivalry.
“Globalization has benefited the poor in China and the rich in the US, not the US middle class, prompting them to [the U.S.] to find a scapegoat,” Arm Tungnirun, director of Chulalongkorn University’s Chinese Studies Center, told a recent forum.