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Thailand revisits the BRI and resists Beijing’s Pressure

The Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok, on 11 January, 2022. (Xinhua/Rachen Sageamsak/IANS)

Thailand, a country that is most under Beijing’s cultural, political, economic and strategic influence is also picking up the courage to revisit and push back against China’s grand design in Southeast Asia through its BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) projects.

Symbolic of China’s influence on Thailand, Bangkok and other cities in the country host the most Confucius Institutes, which are designed to promote official versions of Chinese history, society, and politics, of any country in Asia and more than in the rest of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) combined. Enabling the Chinese’ studies has been an explosion in recent years of Mandarin language courses throughout Thailand at all levels, as well as a rise in non-language courses taught in Mandarin itself.

But when it comes to money and the country’s national interests, the Thais are equally ingenious as the Chinese to take care of them. The most recent example of that was that in December last year, China had succeeded in operationalising the China-Laos high-speed railway line in their own way and against China’s original plan for a 608 km rail link connecting Bangkok with Nong Khai province in the country bordering Laos. China wants to construct the pan-Asian high-speed rail from its Yunnan province through Laos, Thailand which can help the Chinese rail line reach Malaysia and Singapore.

Ultimately, China wants to connect Kunming in its Yunnan province to Singapore by rail. This will help China in creating a secure land transport route that can serve as an alternative to the present shipping routes passing through the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca. China feels that this will be a safer trade route as the marine shipping route currently used by Beijing is susceptible to naval operations by any hostile power, more precisely by India. For some years, China tried to resolve its ‘Malacca dilemma’ by opening up a new route connecting the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, digging up the 120-km long Kra Canal in the Isthmus of Kra in Thailand.  However, Bangkok shot down the project after it realised that Beijing was trying to debt-trap it and the Thai public started opposing mounting Chinese influence in the country.

Bangkok’s help is vital for actualization of the Grand design and therefore Beijing had been pushing the Thailand government for accepting  China’s original plan of building a rail line that would carry passengers and cargoes at a maximum speed of 180 kph. Beijing even got Bangkok to sign an agreement in 2015 to this effect. However, Bangkok, it appears now, wasn’t too keen on the project, and by the time construction began in 2017, Thailand had changed its mind. Like many other countries which received loans from Beijing for infrastructure projects, Bangkok was unhappy with the unfair loan conditions set by the Chinese government. Not only unfair loan conditions that has forced countries like Sri Lanka into debt trap, but also Beijing’s  demand, like other cases, of Chinese materials and workers be used for the project, i.e., using of Thai soil for the benefit of the Chinese government, Chinese businesses, and Chinese workers, was obviously not liked by Thailand.

So, Thailand cut the project by about 60%, announced in its place a new project – a 253 km rail line connecting Bangkok with Nakhon Ratchasima Province. It was also redesigned to carry only passengers at a speed of 250 kph. The most important part of the new project was that instead of a joint Chinese-Thai venture Bangkok said that it would bear the entire construction cost of $5 billion. China’s role has been limited to providing designs and systems for the rail project. This means that China’s dream of a high speed rail line remains incomplete because of the gap between Nakhon Ratchasima and Nong Khai border. Moreover, China’s desire to have a rail link that can carry cargo from the Chinese border to Singapore or Malaysia by bypassing the Straits of Malacca is also not fulfilled with the change in the plan.

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In the case of the high-speed rail at least, the Thai government has arguably achieved much of what might otherwise be expected of civil society. Even before the last December announcement regarding the truncated project, the State Railway of Thailand took the lead in summarily denying China’s request for development rights along the rail’s right-of-way and on the land on either side of its route. Controversy over whether Chinese engineers would be permitted to work in Thailand was also largely driven by officialdom, seriously delaying progress on the rail and resulting in Prime Minister Prayuth being excluded from China’s first Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in 2017. While a compromise on the engineers was reached, Thailand managed to secure considerable technology transfer from Beijing in the process of carrying out the rail link between Bangkok and Nakhon Ratchasima.

It should also be pointed out that the success in revisiting the high speed rail project was achieved through much hard work by the Thai government officials, as in January 2021, only the third of fourteen contracts concerning the rail’s initial section was signed, the result of extended and intensive negotiation by Thailand. Critically, the Thais have also assumed the lion’s share of financing for the project; in effect refusing to engage in “debt trap diplomacy” in favour of a more empowered—if initially expensive—approach.

Thai civil society has clearly played an important role resisting any implicit or explicit attempts at influence with respect to another project placed under the BRI umbrella: the blasting of a final inlet of rapids on the Mekong River to allow for larger vessels travelling to and from southern China. Already linking southern China to the “Maritime Silk Road” via its delta on the Gulf of Thailand, the Mekong River is also being connected to the Andaman Sea via an east-west railway across Thailand’s narrow peninsula. All of this “connectivity” was subsumed under China’s 2015 Lancang-Mekong Cooperation forum, which in turn is officially part of the BRI.

Three years after Thailand agreed to China’s 2016 request to blast the final rapids in northern Thailand, it reversed course in 2019 after sustained protest by civil society organisations and local community groups, and as the Mekong itself was experiencing its lowest levels ever recorded. The main reason for the cancellation concerned the river’s “thalweg,” defined as the middle of the primary navigable channel defining the boundary between two countries—in this case Thailand-Laos. The blasting, in other words, could cause Thailand to lose a sliver of territory to Laos. Publicly, however, both the Thai and Chinese governments cited civil society’s concerns—the environment, ecology, culture, livelihoods, food security—as the main reason for the cancellation. Whatever might be the reason, public relations and face-saving concerns aside, Thai civil society clearly viewed the blasting project as being driven by China; and thus activity, openly, and successfully opposed it.

All the above, however, does not mean that either the Thai government or the civil society are against infrastructure projects in their country by the Chinese government, but they do resent and oppose any arbitrariness on the part of Beijing to promote its own interests at the expense of Thailand’s own national interests. The high- speed rail project does help the Thais in their attempt to promote economic development in the country, but not in the way Beijing wanted the rail line project to be developed with strategic gains utmost in its mind.

(Baladas Ghoshal is a former Professor and Chair in Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University & Secretary General, Society for Indian Ocean Studies)