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Thailand’s confusing election was a win for China

Thailand’s confusing election was a win for China

The Move Forward Party, on the other hand, began discussing China even earlier. In December, it condemned the incumbent Prayuth Chan-ocha government, which had come to power after the 2014 coup, saying that Prayuth, the former army chief, “cowered” when it came to a submarine deal Thailand made with China, and agreed to purchase substandard technology. The party argued that the negotiation regarding the deal with China should wait until a new government that it would lead took power.

Move Forward Party wins the vote, but Pheu Thai Party is elected

Come May, the Move Forward Party did win Thailand’s general election. With a record 75% voter turnout, the party won 151 seats in Thailand’s 500-seat house of representatives, gaining a majority that would allow it to form a government that would effectively end a decade of military rule. The Pheu Thai Party won 141 seats.

Thailand’s new Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin. Source: Pheu Thai Party handout.

But in August, it was the Pheu Thai Party’s Srettha Thavisin who was sworn in as the 30th prime minister of Thailand. Forming a coalition with the military-backed parties, including that of Prayuth, who said he would retire, the second-place winner was able to replace the progressive Move Forward Party, which had vowed to reform the military and the monarchy. Move Forward was sidelined after failing to secure enough votes from the 250-seat military-backed Senate.

The public cried foul, but as the 2017 military-backed constitution affirms the Senate’s voting power, the new government will contain some elements of the old.

Thavisin was endorsed by the Thai parliament on August 22, the same day former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra returned to Thailand after almost two decades of self-exile following the 2006 coup.

Shinawatra backs the Pheu Thai Party and his return to serve a jail sentence on corruption charges is seen as a quid pro quo for Thavisin and Pheu Thai to take power.

Overdependence on China?

Some critics agree that while the Pheu Thai Party and the Move Forward Party have some shared values in electoral politics and a foreign policy that is informed by a liberal internationalist worldview, which the Prayuth government failed to articulate, Pheu Thai, unlike Move Forward, will not seek a complete policy turnaround from Prayuth’s tenure.

This is because the Pheu Thai–led coalition comprises parties formerly part of the Prayuth government, so projects and aspects of foreign policy will continue, including the controversial submarine deal with China, said Zachary Abuza, a security expert at the National War College in Washington.

“Pheu Thai now heads a fractious coalition government that will take considerable efforts to hold together. They will not challenge the Royal Thai Armed Forces leadership or autonomy.”

Abuza continued, “The military leadership will be able to conduct their business, including acquisitions and promotions, without significant oversight. The submarine deal with China will proceed, despite the lack of strategic rationale.”

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in August 2020, when Thailand’s economy slid downward, a parliamentary subcommittee approved the purchase of two more Chinese-made submarines worth 22.5 billion baht ($643 million).

The purchase was later delayed after a public outcry. Under a 2015 deal, Thailand was one of the first countries to buy Chinese naval hardware and finalized its purchase of three submarines in 2017, with the first one expected to be delivered in 2023, a timeline that has been pushed back.

In recent months, it became clear that Thailand might have to accept Chinese-made submarine engines, despite criticism of their technology and safety, as China failed to source the German-made engines agreed to in the contract due to the EU embargo (imposed after the violent suppression of demonstrations in China in 1989 that forbids European sales of arms and military equipment sales to Beijing. Critics have pointed to this as a sign of Bangkok kowtowing to Beijing.

The Pheu Thai-led administration has appointed a civilian as defense minister for the first time in at least a decade. Suthin Klangsang is a former teacher and has been a long-time critic of the military. Klangsang said this week he would find the best solution on the submarine issues, although nothing specific was mentioned.

Russ Chalichandra, a retired Thai diplomat, said that since the 2014 coup, Thai diplomacy has lost balance because of “Thailand’s overdependence on China.”

“Thailand’s diplomacy in the past decade has stepped away from international norms at the cost of its own relevance internationally,” he said, referring to Thailand seeking China’s approval after the coup, when the Obama administration downgraded relations, and its abstention from condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — along with neighbors like China, Vietnam, and Laos — as well as its abstention of the UN resolution for an arms embargo on Myanmar.

Chalichandra thinks a better balancing act can be achieved by the new government between China, with which Thailand established diplomatic relations in 1975, and the U.S., which counts Thailand as its oldest ally in Asia, stemming from the countries’ Treaty of Amity and Commerce that was signed in 1833.

China’s billions — investment and tourism

Thailand–China relations are backed by skyrocketing investment. In the first six months of 2023, China was the biggest foreign investor in Thailand, with projects worth 61.5 billion baht ($1.7 billion), according to the Thailand Board of Investment. (Singapore and Japan followed with 59 billion baht or $1.6 billion, and 35.3 billion baht or $1 billion respectively.)

A China-backed Belt and Road high-speed railway is being constructed linking Bangkok to Kunming via Laos. Thailand is covering all expenditures while China provides support on technology and the railway system.

China was also Thailand’s top source of tourism revenue in 2019, with a record 11 million visitors from the mainland that year. This year, however, only 2.1 million Chinese tourists visited Thailand between January and August.

Chinese arrivals are on top of new prime minister Thavisin’s agenda. He recently proposed a free visa plan for travelers from the mainland which could come into effect in October, in time for the year-end peak season.

What does China want from Thailand?

With the Move Forward Party pushed to the opposition in the parliament, Thailand, under Thavisin’s leadership, will engage in “diplomacy that is led by the creation of economic opportunities,” said Dulyapak Preecharush, from the Institute of East Asian Studies at Thailand’s Thammasat University.

This means avoiding pressuring the Myanmar junta, which is opposite from Move Forward’s proposal, in order to reach any shared economic benefits, he added.

In June, Thailand hosted an informal talk among ASEAN’s foreign ministers, including Than Swe from Myanmar, who was appointed by the junta in February. The meeting was boycotted by Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.

China is Myanmar’s second-biggest aid provider after Russia. Its interest in Myanmar is the pipelines running through Myanmar into China, as well as the Kyaukphyu deep sea port and special economic zone.

In July, Prayuth’s foreign minister, Don Pramudwinai, met with Myanmar’s former leader Aung San Suu Kyi, becoming the first foreign official to be granted access to her since the Myanmar coup.

Days later, Pramudwinai met with China’s Foreign Minister Wáng Yì 王毅 and briefed him on his recent visit to Myanmar, urging China to continue to play an important role in the Myanmar issue.

Abuza, from the National War College, said the Pheu Thai government will continue to be close to China, especially on the Myanmar issue. “A grand coalition government under Pheu Thai is going to continue the Prayuth government’s policies: accommodating to the [junta], unwilling to use ASEAN as a forum to criticize the junta, protective of Thai corporate interests in Myanmar, and deference to the Royal Thai Army’s positions.”

He further noted that ”the Pheu Thai grand coalition government is clearly not in America’s interests as they are going to continue to be close to China. More to the point, they view democracy as a gateway to republicanism, which is what conservatives deem an existential threat. The U.S. and a Thai government under Pheu Thai will not see eye to eye on security threats, and as such, the alliance will continue to drift.”

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