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Sino-Thai Ties: At a Crossroads

China and Thailand have forged even closer ties with the recent exchanges of visits of key policy makers. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, during his Bangkok trip early this month, extolled Thailand for playing a “significant” role in promoting relations between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The two countries agreed to increase bilateral trade to US$100 billion by 2015. In 2012, two-way trade stood at nearly US$70 billion, as a result of the successful Sino-Thai FTA signed in 2003. Thailand became the first ASEAN country concluding a FTA with China. Wang stressed, “The unique Sino-Thai relationship will play an exemplary role in the development of China’s relations with ASEAN”. Thailand is this year the country coordinator of China-ASEAN relations.
 
yingluck and wang yi
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi
 
Meanwhile, on the sidelines of the Defence Ministers Meeting of ASEAN and its allies, the Thai and Chinese ministers met and pledged to expand their military ties. Marines from the two countries have held a ‘’Blue Strike’’ joint exercise for two years, with Thailand and China alternately hosting the programme designed to counter terrorism. The two countries’ armed forces first kicked off their cooperation in joint drills under codename ‘’Strike’’. Albeit in a much smaller scale, “Strike” is a copycat of Thai-US military exercise called “Cobra Gold”, which has remained the oldest and largest operation in Asia-Pacific.
 
Since the early 1980s, Thailand has purchased armaments and military-related equipment at “friendship prices” from China, much of which effectively amounted to “military gift aid”. Sino-Thai military links are among some of the most developed in the region — second only to Myanmar, China’s quasi ally. Some analysts claim Thailand is intentionally balancing its military and financial dependence on the United States by nurturing better relations with China. 
 
At a deeper level however, Sino-Thai defence exercises and other military exchanges, although progressively advancing over the years, have quantitatively and qualitatively lagged far behind the US-Thai security relations. Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, argues that a typical Cobra Gold exercise—summoning 12,000 troops and spanning two weeks—dwarfs the largest Sino-Thai drill: a 2005 naval operation that ended in less than four hours. Basically, China does not possess the same military capabilities as those of the United States, and certainly lacks sophisticated military know-how to lure Thailand away from its American friend. 
 
It may be true that the overall Sino-Thai relations have greatly improved over the years and that the scale of Chinese military exercises with Thailand will probably increase in the future. But Thailand’s relationship with China is different from that with the United States. It is much less about security, but more on politics and business. Although China has rapidly modernised its army in the past decades and augments its military budget annually, it will take a while before the country could confidently challenge the US’ military supremacy in Thailand. 
 
In any case, it is expected that Thailand will not allow its defence ties with China to be similar to the Thai-US military relations. Surachart Bamrungsuk, a military specialist at Chulalongkorn University, averred that Thailand remained highly protective of Cobra Gold and its friendship with the United States. Because of incomparable values and firm commitment on the part of the United States, Bangkok will likely not attempt to jeopardise its military ties with Washington. Yet, at the same time, the Thai government sees nothing wrong with nurturing an intimate relationship with China in order to diversify its policy options. 
 
Quietly, Thailand is sliding into China’s warm, embracing arms. Most Thai cabinet ministers and powerful businesses have significant investments in China. Thailand’s Charoen Pokphand (CP), one of Southeast Asia’s largest companies, has been doing business in China since 1949. The current Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra also has a Chinese blood. Thailand has gleefully welcomed China’s soft power. More Thai students are now keen to learn Mandarin, prompting China to dispatch a large number of language teachers to Thailand. 
 
Clearly, Thailand’s foreign policy toward China has been implemented on the basis of a win-win formula, based on the rule of “respecting each other’s sovereignty”. To confirm this, Thailand has repeatedly expressed its one-China policy and the support for China’s sabre-rattling towards Taiwan. In return, Beijing has avoided intervening in the protracted Thai political crisis. The current Chinese ambassador to Bangkok, Guan Mu, is a fluent Thai speaker and has served in the country for 18 years in different capacities. The personal familiarity has given China a personal edge and allowed an access to top Thai elite.
 
In retrospect, Thailand and China established its diplomatic ties in 1975. Throughout the latter half of the Cold War, Thailand and China formed a loose military alignment against the advancement of Vietnamese communists in Indochina. After the end of the Cold War, bilateral relations have remained healthy thanks to the absence of territorial disputes, the firm ties between the Thai royal family and the Chinese leadership, and the well-integrated Chinese community in Thailand.
 
But today, the inexorable ties also place Thailand in an awkward position. For example, Thailand has refused to make its position on the South China Sea for fear that this could upset the Chinese leadership. And the Thai indecisiveness has cost ASEAN its unity. 
 
A more balanced Thai foreign policy is needed, not just for the sake of the country’s interests, but also for the regional stability which both Thailand and China could mutually enjoy.
 
pavin Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.