Debates about the provenance of the Thai people continue today, and over the course of the twentieth century many Thai and Western anthropologists sought to understand the relationships between modern Thailand and the Tai-speaking peoples found scattered throughout Laos, Yunnan province, Myanmar, and Vietnam. In the twentieth century, Thai ideologists, seeking to define a Thai ‘race’ and influenced by Western theories of race and eugenics, traced back the origins of Tai-speaking groups to China, telling a story of retreat under demographic pressure, as Han groups spread southward.
Thailand’s political relations with China can be traced back to the Ayutthaya period (1350–1767), when the city-state at the junction of the Chao Phraya and Pa Sak rivers grew rich and powerful through its trade and tribute with imperial China. Ayutthaya, today a World Heritage site, preserves a number of remains that indicate the presence of a Chinese diaspora that grew to as many as 10,000 by the end of the period. One of these is the Shrine of the Lady Soi Dok Mak (‘Necklace of Areca Flowers’) that commemorates an apocryphal legend of the Chinese emperor’s daughter arriving to marry an Ayutthayan king, only to die of disappointment at the humble surroundings of her new home. Burmese forces sacked Ayutthaya in 1765, but a noble of Chinese (Teochiu) descent, Taksin, raised an army of Chinese soldiers, drove the Burmese out and proclaimed himself king. Today shrines to King Taksin can be found all over Thailand.
The Chakri dynasty, founded after Taksin and which continues to this day, is likely to have some Chinese ancestry. Nonetheless it was king Mongkut, Rama IV (1851–68), who ended tribute missions to China in 1853.
Waves of Chinese migration continued regardless, as they had for decades. In the era of Rama III (1824–51), Chinese labourers built the Saen Saep Canal connecting Bangkok with Siam’s eastern provinces, in part to support its wars in Cambodia. In the late nineteenth century, Hakka, Hokkien, Hainanese, and Teochiu-speaking migrants continued to arrive via steamship, increasingly filling important roles in the local economy. Chinese capital formed a co-dependent but uneasy relationship with the Thai monarchy. Rama VI (1910–25) was disturbed by both a Chinese labour strike that paralysed the city in 1910 and the rise of Chinese nationalism after the 1911 revolution, and wrote a racist tract calling the Chinese the ‘Jews of the East’.
Relations with China became more strained after Thailand’s absolute monarchy ended in 1932 and as the country moved close to Japan in the era leading up to the Second World War. Harsh suppression of Chinese expressions of identity followed, and many immigrant Chinese adopted Thai names, even while continuing to control much of the economy. After the war, Thailand moved increasingly into the US camp, contributing forces to the Korean conflict in 1950 and joining the Southeast Asian Treaty Organisation in 1954. There were no diplomatic relations with communist China, and Thailand accused China of supporting its own communist insurgency. Nonetheless, Prime Minister Phibun Songkram (in power 1938–44 and 1947–57) and his advisor Sang Phathanothai maintained back-channel communications, including through sending Sang’s son and daughter to China to live under the care of Zhou Enlai.
The US defeat in Vietnam in 1975 saw Thailand seek a reset in its relations with its communist neighbours. Accordingly, it established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1975, ceasing recognition of Taiwan. But Thailand’s military and monarchy remained fervently anti-communist, as Thailand sought to manage its own communist insurgency and demands for a more liberal politics. Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in late 1978 saw the Thai military shift its view of China from foe to friend. China’s thrust into northern Vietnam and subsequent support to the Khmer Rouge guerrilla resistance allayed Thai fears of Vietnam further expanding its sphere of influence. With the tacit support of the United States, the Thai military assisted the transport of Chinese arms to the Khmer Rouge.
Relations began to warm further as China opened up to market reforms and foreign investment in the Deng era. Biofarming giant Charoen Phokphand, founded by the Guangzhou emigrant Dhanin Chearavanont (ธนินท์ เจียรวนนท์ in Thai, known in Chinese as Chia Kok Min or Xie Guomin, 謝國民) was the first foreign investor in China, with registration number ‘0001’. Trade steadily increased until China became Thailand’s number one trading partner in 2012. The Thai Princess Sirindhorn, elder sister of the current King Vajiralongkorn (Rama X 2016–), one of the most popular members of the royal family and at one point considered a potential successor to King Bumhibol (Rama IX 1946–2016) studied Chinese language, calligraphy, and poetry, and has made numerous visits to the country.
China’s economic success spurred pride among Sino-Thais, which some estimate to be about a third of the population of Bangkok. In 2005, the immensely popular Sino-Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra celebrated his Chinese ancestry with a visit to his grandparent’s ancestral home in Guangdong. Chinese culture and food is familiar, as are Chinese literary works such as The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (known as Sam Kok in Thai).
Thailand remains a US ally but diplomatic relations between China and Thailand have improved, while those with the United States have been strained since the coups of 2006 and 2014. In 1999 Thailand and China signed a ‘Plan of Action for the Twenty First Century’, which called for recognising a ‘new multipolar security order’. Thai-Chinese military relations have grown, with the addition of air, naval, and land force exercises, though on a much smaller scale than Thailand’s exercise programme with the United States. Most recently, the Thai military has announced its intention to purchase three Chinese Yuan-class submarines, which has caused controversy. While Thai-US military ties remain very substantial, with up to 60 bilateral exercises each year, turbulence in the bilateral relations since the 2006 and 2014 coups has prompted speculation that Thailand is drifting towards China.
China and Thailand were founding members of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) forum established in 1992 to develop the region by increasing transport connectivity in order to attract private capital investment in tourism, agriculture, and manufacturing. As such, they have cooperated for some years on connective infrastructure, and in particular on the GMS North–South Economic Corridor (NSEC) linking China to seaports in Thailand and Myanmar by road. In this context, China and Thailand jointly funded the R3 highway connecting Yunnan (Xishuangbanna prefecture) with northern Thailand (Chiang Rai province) through northern Laos. The highway was completed in 2005 and then linked to Thailand’s Chiang Khong via a Friendship Bridge opened in 2013.
Thailand has been a vocal supporter of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) since it was announced in 2013. In practice, caution can be discerned in the ways it has sought to steer the initiative in its own interests. Rather than simply agreeing to China’s proposals, it has emphasised the complementarity of the BRI with its own infrastructure plans, as well as those of ASEAN and other multilateral groupings such as the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS) which comprises the five countries of mainland Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand). A good example is Thailand’s Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC), which will initially link its three key airports (Don Muang and Suvarnabhumi in Bangkok, and Utapao in Rayong province) with high-speed rail. Thailand is prioritising this project ahead of the Singapore–Kunming Rail Line (see below), while stressing its connectivity with the GMS North–South Economic Corridor (China’s priority, now subsumed into the BRI) and inviting Chinese investment. The project aligns with goals of making Thailand the indispensable regional logistical hub, including by placing the EEC at the heart of the East–West Economic Corridor (EWEC) connecting Thailand’s ports with those of Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Japan supports this goal, and is directing the majority of its GMS investment to the EWEC.
The centrepiece of Thailand’s BRI cooperation with China has been a high-speed rail project connecting Bangkok to Kunming via Laos. The idea of a railway linking Kunming to Singapore (the Singapore–Kunming Rail Link, or SKRL) was originally an ASEAN proposal, announced at the Fifth ASEAN Summit in December 1995. The advent of the BRI, and China’s proven experience in high-speed rail development, saw an increase in the momentum for making the SKRL a reality. In 2021 it will complete the Laos section, linking Kunming to Laos’ capital, Vientiane (see also the project profile for the section of the railway in Laos).
The rail project with Thailand has had, however, a troubled history almost since its inception, with tough negotiations leading to frustration on both sides. In 2010, Thailand signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with China for a joint venture company to build the high-speed rail line. Changes of government and public criticism saw further MoUs, but no construction. The junta of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, on coming to power in 2014, signed another MoU agreeing to a route from Nong Khai on the Laos border to Bangkok. But unresolved issues around shareholding structure, interest rates, and control of adjoining land again prevented work starting. In 2016, Thailand announced it would finance the entire project itself, and the following year the Thai prime minister was not invited to the BRI conference, a clear message of China’s discontent. Prayuth’s junta reacted by overriding bureaucratic roadblocks on use of Chinese materials and accreditation of Chinese engineers. In 2020, after nine rounds of negotiations, a contract for joint construction of a high-speed route was finally signed, but only for a section between Bangkok and the north–eastern city of Nakhon Ratchasima. There is at present no agreement for the construction of the joining section from Nakhon Ratchasima to Nong Khai, leaving the SKRL incomplete and Laos still landlocked.
Thailand has also been cautious on other Chinese proposals. In 2019, it declined China’s proposal to blast all the rapids in the Mekong in order to allow the passage of ships 500 tonnes and above, putatively in response to pressure from environmentalists (environmentalists in Thailand have also been concerned about the impact of the China-backed Sanakham Dam on the Mekong). To date it has stalled on moving ahead with China’s proposal for a canal across the Kra peninsula linking the Andaman sea and the Gulf of Thailand, thereby allowing shipping transiting from the Middle East to Northeast Asia to bypass the Malacca Strait. In sum, Thailand has long held a vision of itself as an infrastructure hub connecting maritime and mainland Southeast Asia, as well as China and Southeast Asia, and works to portray the BRI as complementary to these plans. In this goal it has geography on its side.
Trade: China has been Thailand’s most significant trading partner since 2012. Thailand was quick to take advantage of China’s opening up, and between 1996 and 2006, according to data from the UN Commodity Trade Statistics (COMTRADE) database (UN Statistics Division) trade with China grew by 568%. A significant portion of the trade, both imports and exports, was office machines, and electronic and telecommunications equipment, reflecting the involvement of both countries in global supply chains. The two countries signed a free trade agreement in agriculture in 2003. Thailand’s economy is not, however, unhealthily dependent on China. It still exports more to the United States than to China, and while 19% of its trade is with China, 23% is with ASEAN. In 2018 Thailand’s total trade with ASEAN was 120.4 billion USD in 2018, more than its total trade with China (79.8 billion USD). This should not be surprising, as in 2019 China’s share of total ASEAN trade was only 18%, and mainland Southeast Asian countries are highly outward-facing; Vietnam and Thailand together have three ports in the world’s fifty busiest ports.
Investment: Japan has long been the largest foreign investor in Thailand, but was overtaken by China in 2019. Japanese investment, worth 71.5 billion USD in 2016, was from Japanese manufacturing firms establishing factories for general machine industry and transportation equipment. Later Japanese investment also targeted agriculture, farm products, chemical industry and paper manufacturing. Two factors pushed Chinese investment higher: the trade war with the United States and Thailand’s invitation to Chinese companies to invest in the Eastern Economic Corridor. Jack Ma’s Alibaba, for example, is investing in an e-commerce and product distribution centre in the EEC. Two Chinese firms have bought land and are planning to build ‘smart cities’. The EEC project, which will cover some 13,000 square kilometres in the provinces of Rayong, Chonburi, and Chachoengsao, is seen as Thailand’s strategy for lifting itself out of the ‘middle income trap’ and is part of its ‘Thailand 4.0’ strategy, that is preparing Thailand for the fourth industrial revolution by targeting new industries such as biotechnology and robotics.
Tourism: Tourism is very important to the Thai economy. In 2017, the sector employed 2,336,500 people directly and contributed 9.4% of Thailand’s GDP. Chinese tourists have become increasingly important to this industry. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, anywhere between half a million and a million Chinese tourists arrived in Thailand each month, making China the largest source of tourists of any country. But an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with Chinese tourists has been increasing. Many Thais feel that Chinese tourists are ill-mannered or do not respect Thai customs or traditions. There are fears that the so-called ‘zero baht’ package tours primarily profit Chinese travel companies and reduce the flow of economic benefits to Thais. Consequently, there have been calls for the country to limit the number of tourists entering Thailand.
Mekong: China’s capacity to control Mekong water flows has the potential to become an irritant in the relationship. Observers argue that there was significant rainfall and snowmelt in China in 2019, but because China withheld the water from this precipitation in its dams, Mekong flows were low even as the lower Mekong Basin suffered a severe drought. However, China has denied that its dams are responsible for low water levels downstream, and Thailand is actively building dams of its own on the mainstream Mekong in Laos.
Communications infrastructure: Thailand is cooperating with China’s Huawei in the construction of its 5G mobile phone network, which has prompted warnings from the United States about the intelligence ramifications. As of March 2021, Thailand has not signed a contract but has invited Huawei to establish a test-bed as part of the EEC project. Thailand has already hosted Beidou satellite ground stations since 2013.
Kra canal project: Building a canal across the narrow Isthmus of Kra in southern Thailand is a potential project attractive to Beijing because it would alleviate the China’s ‘Malacca Dilemma’—that is its excessive reliance on the sea-routed trade passing through the thin Straits between Malaysia and Singapore. The project is often framed as another litmus test of Thailand’s accommodation of China. Senior Thais from General Prayuth to the former Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai have emphasised the perception that a canal would endanger Thailand’s territorial integrity by dividing the country in two. Some have suggested that the project might require the Thai monarchy to assent.
Reuters, Associated Press, ABC, BBC, Channel News Asia, and The Straits Times have correspondents in Thailand and report from the nation.
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Cover Photo: Bankok, Thailand. Credit: (CC) Luke Milliron.