King Bhumibol’s Passing and Sino-Thai Relations
By Tai Wei Lim

King Bhumibol’s Passing and Sino-Thai Relations

Nov. 01, 2016  |     |  0 comments

Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej was the world’s longest-reigning monarch before his demise on October 13, 2016. He had been in the hospital receiving haemodialysis for his liver issues. A unifying figure in Thailand, crowds of people took to the streets wearing black to publicly grieve Bhumibol’s death. The Thai government announced a year-long mourning period and the king’s 64-year-old son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, was named as the successor.


Thailand is one of a few countries that is a close partner of China. The advantage that Bangkok currently has in its diplomacy with Beijing is that the country is not involved in any territorial dispute with China. In terms of people-to-people relations, Thailand’s Chinese have successfully integrated into Thai society, especially the Teochew (or Chaozhou) people. Consequently, there is no outstanding issue to affect Sino-Thai relations due to “fanhua qingxu” (or anti-ethnic Chinese sentiments).


Bangkok’s Chinatown is doing well and tourists flocking in from China and other ethnic communities is a testament to its success. In terms of trade, China has become Thailand’s largest trading partner. The Chinese are also major investors in Thailand and aspire to build the country’s high speed railway (HSR) system. Recently, an unusual spat emerged in this project when the Thais apparently expressed unwillingness to accept a deal where the land proximate to the railway track was offered to Chinese investors as first cut. They were not willing to follow the Laotian model where this had seemingly happened. However, this issue no longer surfaced later on.


Because of these factors, Thailand enjoys a good ranking in its bilateral relations with China, based on the latter’s hierarchical classification of foreign relations. Thailand and China are engaged in what is known as a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership.” Few Asian countries are closer than this. Pakistan is an ironclad ally for Beijing while North Korea is a client state tapping into Beijing’s material donations.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Sino-Thai relations are the personal bonds that had been forged between members of the Thai royal family and the Chinese elite leadership over the years. Thailand established official ties with China in 1975 and was one of the earliest countries in Southeast Asia to do so. King Bhumibol maintained the Sino-Thai bond by meeting most of the top Chinese leaders. When the late Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping visited Thailand, King Bhumibol invited him to attended the Crown Prince’s ordination ceremony. Deng offered the young man a saffron robe, a gesture that went down well with the Thai public due to the religious value. When former Chinese President Jiang Zemin paid a state visit to Thailand in 1999, King Bhumibol hosted a welcome ceremony at the airport and a state banquet at the Grand Palace for President Jiang. In 2001, the king met Premier Zhu Rongji at the summer palace in Hua Hin, Thailand’s royal seaside resort. The king also met then vice-president Hu Jintao in 2000 and then vice-president Xi Jinping in 2011. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, the second daughter of Bhumibol, is fluent in Mandarin and makes frequent visits to China. She studied at Peking University and was named by Beijing as a “people’s friendship ambassador” for the two nations. Thai military officials, politicians, and statesmen are frequent visitors to China too.

When the late Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping visited Thailand, King Bhumibol invited him to attended the Crown Prince’s ordination ceremony.

Besides person-to-person exchanges, Thailand has also purchased military equipment from China based on special “friendship prices.” Chinese offerings in the past included the Chinese-augmented Russian MIG-21 copies, known as F-7M fighters in the early days of the relationship, but the Thais eventually lost interest and did not buy the aircraft. This relationship is set to expand as the Thais look interested to purchase Main Battle Tanks or MBTs VT4 from the Chinese military industrial complex. Both sides are also upgrading their relationship to have co-training and exercises between their marines and air forces.


Thailand also holds vital chips in its bilateral relations with China. Thailand’s consent must be given before any project to build a canal through the Isthmus of Kra can take place. Malaysia and Singapore’s maritime trade may be affected by such a move. Any such move must be taken with great care as Beijing and Bangkok both have good ties with Singapore and Malaysia. Intentions of constructing the canal have been around for the longest time, since the days of the British Empire, but they have not transpired. China or its companies apparently have shown an on-off interest in this project, though both the Chinese and Thais have denied it.


The success of Thailand’s China policy is linked to its success in balancing between the great powers. The Thais are skilled in this aspect as they have been dancing with large powers since the arrival of the European trading nations. They were able to strike an equilibrium between the French and British empires and therefore were never colonized. Thailand is only one of a few countries in Asia that averted colonization.


Thailand is also a strong ally of the US and a principal partner in Exercise Cobra Gold every year. Recent ties have been slightly hurt by the military coup that restored order after Thai society became divided between the red- and yellow-shirt conflict over former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. It is quite likely that the military and civilian leadership will be able to skirt over the current temporary slump in US-Thai relations.


The country is also friendly with Japan, hosting a large portion of their foreign direct investment. In fact, Thailand is known as the “Detroit of the East” because of Japanese automobile investments in the country.


Thai political balancing in the geopolitical sphere is not without its critics. Bangkok has been faulted by human rights activists for allowing Hong Kong-based publishers to be whisked back to China by security officials. In October 2016, Joshua Wong, the pro-democracy activist who shot to fame in the Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong, was also prevented from entering Thailand. He was detained and questioned at the airport immigration section before being sent back to Hong Kong. In July 2015, Bangkok deported some hundred Uighur refugees, a move that drew condemnation from human rights groups as it separated families by sending the men to China and the women and children to Turkey. A month later, a bomb went off at Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine, allegedly planted by Uighur militants in retaliation of the move.

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