The Thai prime minister is under pressure from the country’s pro-democracy movement and the pandemic-related economic crisis. Wang Yi wants Thailand to maintain its "social stability". China announces more investments in Thailand. The new Silk Road conundrum. The US needs its Thai ally in Southeast Asia to contain China.
Rome (AsiaNews) – China is rushing to help Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha by promising investments and economic support. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pledged Beijing’s backing yesterday, during a meeting in Bangkok with the Thai leader. Prayuth is under pressure from the ongoing protests by the country’s pro-democracy movement and calls for his resignation at a time of economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wang said China supports Thailand's commitment to “social stability, [. . .] development and prosperity”. For many observers, this represents support for Prayuth's decision to declare a state of emergency banning public protests.
As a rule, China claims that it does not interfere in the internal affairs of another country, a stance it does not live up to when its own strategic interests are at stake. In fact, the Chinese government has a track record in endorsing the repressive policies of an authoritarian regime. This was the case with the recent protests in Belarus. They broke out after the latest contested re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko, which the local opposition considers rigged.
Xi Jinping was among the first foreign leaders to congratulate the Belarusian strongman on his new mandate; on that occasion, China’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that China opposes “external forces triggering division and disturbances in Belarusian society” – Minsk is a partner in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative or "New Silk Road," Xi's mega-project to boost China’s trade routes in Asia, Africa and Europe.
However, the coronavirus crisis caused the Thai economy to collapse; in the second quarter of the year, GDP fell by 12.2 per cent on an annual basis. To overcome the crisis, and transform its country into a technology hub, Prayuth needs China, Thailand’s main foreign investor and its top commercial partner with an annual trade of nearly US billion.
During his visit, the Chinese foreign minister promised more Chinese investments in the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC), a special economic area created by Bangkok in 2017, integrating it into the Belt and Road scheme. Wang hopes that the EEC will be linked with the Greater Bay Area (Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong), which is the focus of a package of new economic reforms Xi announced on Wednesday in Shenzhen.
In return, Beijing is asking for faster construction of the high-speed railway between Yunnan and Bangkok (via Laos), part of the Belt and Road plan. Disagreements on the amount of Chinese funding have slowed the construction of the Thai section. For China, the rail link is strategically important as an alternative to the Strait of Malacca, which could be closed by the United States in the event of a conflict between the two powers.
Analysts note that Prayuth finds himself in a difficult position as he tries to strike a balance between Beijing and Washington. Thailand and the United States are tied by an alliance treaty; Thai air bases are a key element in the US strategy to contain China. The relationship with Bangkok has taken on even greater importance recently after the Trump administration stepped up its efforts to enlist Southeast Asian countries against Chinese expansionism in the region.
It is no coincidence that the US State Department has so far used soft tones regarding the anti-government protests that have rocked Thailand for the past three months, encouraging all parties involved to act with restraint and engage in dialogue.