NONG KHAI, Thailand | A new arrival can easily spot China’s inexorable southern thrust along the Mekong River, where tall, fanciful Chinese buildings sprout nearby on the Laos side of this sleepy northern frontier town, sparking both hopes and fears about Beijing’s influence and intent in Thailand.
A top CIA official’s recent visit to Bangkok, which came amid a flurry of lucrative U.S. military and business deals, may lure this longtime American ally to favor the U.S. and not China in the future, but the rivalry is heating up. And as elsewhere in the region, the attraction of Chinese investment and markets are proving potent.
“Thailand has been leaning toward China, and away from the U.S., for two decades,” said Benjamin Zawacki, Bangkok-based American author of “Thailand: Shifting Ground Between the U.S. and Rising China.”
“In the military sphere, relations with the U.S. are arguably still deeper, but the gap is closing swiftly,” Mr. Zawacki said in an interview.
Many Thais celebrate their Chinese ancestry, which dates back 700 years, contrasting it with the persecution they suffered in Thailand during U.S.-led anti-communist purges in the mid-20th century.
Chinese schools, newspapers and other facilities in Thailand were forced to close during those years of racism and stark ideological polarization, as Thais of Chinese descent faced accusations of disloyalty and subversion.
“Ancestry plays a big part in bringing the two countries closer together, as more Chinese migrants moved to Thailand than to any other country” in Southeast Asia, said Thai-Chinese Cultural Relationship Council President Pinit Jarusombat, formerly a deputy prime minister.
Beijing and Washington have clashed repeatedly over the South China Sea’s maritime borders, shipping routes, military access and exploitation of natural resources.
The U.S. Navy began training the Thai Royal Navy in anti-submarine warfare in 2019, despite the navy wanting to purchase three Chinese-built Yuan-class S26T submarines, priced at $400 million each.
“Any armed conflict in the region that implicates or directly involves the U.S. and China will turn on which power occupies the maritime high ground. The dynamic [about submarines] is the rivalry in action,” Mr. Zawacki said.
Thai officials seem keenly aware of the balancing act they are trying to pull off.
“Since we already have the first submarine [agreed upon], the second and third will have to follow, but it remains to be seen as to when,” Navy Chief Admiral Somprasong Nilsamai said earlier this month. Bangkok’s budget crunch due to COVID-19 may delay the three deliveries.
Belt and Road
Laos’ railway to China “will likely make Thailand more economically dependent upon Beijing, which itself will seek to protect its geopolitical interests in Thailand,” said Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Thailand’s Naresuan University focusing on Bangkok’s international affairs, military and foreign policy.
To tighten relations, CIA Deputy Director David Cohen flew to Bangkok in November and met Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a retired army chief who seized power in a 2014 coup and won a 2019 election. Their closed-door meeting reportedly highlighted Thailand’s politics, economy and regional security.
Ford Motor Co., meanwhile, announced in December that it would invest $900 million to upgrade its car assembly factories in Thailand.
Other U.S. firms also promised new investments, and America remains Thailand’s biggest export market.
“Since the Biden administration took office, the U.S. has reached out to maintain a close dialogue with their Thai counterparts,” said Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Tanee Sangrat. “The country has not been bypassed by the U.S.”
On the other hand, Thailand is enthusiastically integrating China’s Huawei 5G telecommunications systems, including smartphones, cloud computing, fiber infrastructure, medical services and artificial intelligence. Both the Trump and Biden administration have pressed allies around the world not to use Huawei in their networks, citing what they say are the company’s murky ties to the communist regime’s military and intelligence services.
“I am deeply impressed by Huawei’s history and dedication,” Prime Minister Prayuth said.
“Many Thai senior security officials were disappointed that the U.S. would leave Afghanistan and give up on an ally,” said Mr. Chambers.
For example, Thai Air Chief Marshal Napadej Dhupatemiya wants to purchase eight Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth combat jets to replace aging F-15s and F-16s.
“The F-35 aircraft are no longer out of reach because the price per unit has been lowered to $82 million from $142 million,” Marshal Napadej said on Jan. 4.
The Royal Thai Army is already awaiting delivery of about 60 U.S.-made Stryker armored personnel carriers — the type of vehicle the military deployed when crushing pro-democracy demonstrations in 2010, during which nearly 100 people, mostly civilians, died.
Bangkok is a non-NATO treaty ally with Washington and was used to launch U.S. aerial bombing raids and ground assaults against communist nationalists in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam War.
Ghosts from that bloodshed still haunt relations.
“We should not follow the path of a nation [the U.S.] which, in the past, set up a military base in Thai territory, from which it launched offensives” against Thailand’s neighbors, Mr. Pinit, of the Thai-China cultural council, told the Bangkok Post.
A new generation of Thais are also being taught about the U.S.-China rivalry.
“Globalization has benefited the poor in China and the rich in the U.S., not the American middle class, prompting them [the U.S.] to look for a scapegoat,” Chulalongkorn University’s Chinese Studies Center director Arm Tungnirun told a recent forum.