When it emerged in April that Thailand’s generals had quietly approved the purchase of three Chinese submarines at the cost of a cool $1 billion, more than a few eyebrows were raised. After all, Thailand is surrounded by shallow waters, and the country’s economy hasn’t exactly thrived since a military coup in 2014 brought the current junta to power. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha admitted the subs were “not for battle, but so that others will be in awe of us.”
Some snickered at the deal, but others saw in it more proof that a geopolitical change of historical significance is taking place. It’s not the submarines that are important; it’s that the generals bought them from China, along with 34 armored personnel carriers and 28 tanks. “We can’t forget that Thailand was really quite hostile to China all the way through the Cold War,” says Wasana Wongsurawat, an assistant professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University and an expert in the history of modern China. “Now here we are, building a much more dependent relationship with them.”
THIS IS HARDLY THE FIRST TIME THAT CHINA HAS STEPPED IN TO GRAB DIPLOMATIC AND ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITIES WITH COUNTRIES HEADED BY MILITARY REGIMES.
Thailand’s recent past is painting a future framed by China. According to the Thailand Board of Investment, Japan and other countries that once dominated the economy have reduced their direct investments since the coup, from $8.7 billion in 2014 to $1.6 billion in 2016. In contrast, China has gone from barely breaking the top 10 in 2012 to investing slightly less than $1 billion in 2016, second only to Japan. Other indicators of a major shift in relations between China and the Land of Smiles range from language instruction to giant bilateral infrastructure projects. “I would definitely say [a Chinese presence] is increasing at least for the past three to five years,” confirms Kraisin Vongsurakrai, executive director of the Thai Chamber of Commerce.
“It starts with the tourists,” Kraisin continues, referring to a sector that accounts for 12 percent of the gross domestic product. The latest government figures show that almost a third of international arrivals in 2016 were from China, an increase of nearly 12 percent from the previous year.
“Then you have the Chinese individuals and businesses who are finding that ease of business compared to other countries in the region are quite favorable,” continues Kraisin, who also acts as secretary-general of the Thailand-China Business Council. While Kraisin says exact figures are difficult to come by, China has been Thailand’s largest trading partner every year since 2012, generating a trade surplus for Thailand of $17 billion in 2015. And the booming trade, Kraisin says, is “happening across all sectors.”
Wasana sees those growing business links causing a momentous cultural shift as well. “Nowadays regular public schools are teaching Chinese,” says Wasana. “And if you [run] a private school, you wouldn’t survive if you didn’t offer it.” That’s a far cry from 1941, a nadir of Chinese cultural influence in Thailand when the Thai state actively closed Chinese schools around the country to strengthen a hard-line “Thai-ification” policy for a nation that felt it lacked a strong sense of national identity. At one point, only two Chinese-language institutions were left in the country.
Up in the cool hills in the far north of Thailand, Teacher Ratiya, as she is known to students, colleagues and friends, explains the recent change in attitudes. As the head of the foreign language department at Chiang Rai’s famous Samakkhee Wittayakhoum school, Ratiya says that about two years ago, the Office of the Basic Education Commission asked the school to consider adding Chinese-language classes to the curriculum, particularly in the younger grades. “This year we finally have been able to create one class a week for our seventh-grade students,” she tells OZY. Ratiya says the impetus for adding the class was due as much to demand from pupils and parents as it was from governmental fiat. “We will have to increase the periods to accommodate that [demand] very soon,” she says.
A different kind of Chinese accommodation was made in July, when Thailand’s prime minister gave a provisional green light that freed up some $5.2 billion to begin construction of a high-speed railway linking Bangkok and southern China. The megaproject had been dogged by delays, but Prayuth invoked his emergency absolute power to mow down hurdles for a massive project that’s part of Beijing’s flagship One Belt, One Road infrastructure drive to resurrect multiple iterations of the ancient Silk Road connecting the Middle Kingdom to Central Asia and beyond.
What’s in all this for China? At a time when it is locked in tensions with most of its neighbors — some over maritime disputes, others like India over more direct global competition — it could use more regional partners. This is particularly so because the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations is the linchpin of the region’s security architecture, and China needs votes on that body to stall any anti-Beijing resolutions or alignments, especially given tensions in the South China Sea.
This is hardly the first time that China has stepped in to grab diplomatic and economic opportunities with countries headed by military regimes or dictatorial leaders that the West views with apprehension. For years the Myanmar junta was an example. More recently, the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte has moved closer to China even though Beijing has refused to honor a U.N. tribunal order that ruled in favor of Manila on a swath of the South China Sea both claim.
According to Wasana, Thailand’s military junta “looks like it’s going to stay on for a long time.” After a series of nominally democratic government that lurched from coup to coup, a little stability — if not democracy — suits both Thailand and China just fine.