Thai-China relations: The next 40 years

On July 1, 1975, to prepare for the celebration of historic diplomatic ties with China, the Thai delegation headed by Prime Minister Kukrit Pramoj put on board the special TG flight five essential items: 200 durians, 50-packs of Samit Virginia cigarettes, dozens of Tara and Maekhong whisky bottles, Singha beer and lots of fresh flowers.

These specialties were all for the Chinese leaders and guests at the thank-you dinner reception after the establishment of relations.

China had just emerged from the scorch of the Cultural Revolution and was opening up bit by bit to join the rest of the global community. So the exotic durians and beverages were essential to kick off relations. (Talking about the king of fruits - today only fresh Thai durians are allowed directly into China, the rest from the region have to be frozen.)

After international recognition in 1972 with a seat at the United Nations, China was destined to rise, but nobody at the time ever imagined that it would be so dramatic and far-reaching, shaking existing regional and international orders.

In retrospect, it was amazing that Kukrit's short-lived 272-day minority government (March 14, 1975 till January 12, 1976) could forge ties with China against all odds. Deservingly, it was Kukrit's only foreign policy legacy -the country's most memorable.

Over the past two decades, China has modernised and moved to become the world's second largest economy - while Thailand has been through eight coups and currently is still trying to break the vicious political cycle.

Interestingly, their bilateral ties are immune to the actions of the political nincompoops over here, different from the rollercoaster-like Thai-US relations.

Notably, since last May, following the power seizure and in the absence of normal Thai-US diplomatic activity, Thailand and China as well as other major powers have further boosted their co-operation. But China has been the biggest beneficiary.

Now after 40 years have elapsed, it is a good time to ask what will be the future of Thai-China relations in the next 40 years? "Tai zhong yit jia" - Thailand and China are one family - is the common diktat to describe their status. But is it really?

Judging from newspaper headlines and ongoing economic transactions, it is not the case. The overall "quality" of Thai-China ties are still found wanting because the emphasis has been on the "quantitative aspect". Each year, there are plenty of joint activities and projects but few have been seriously followed through. The asymmetry of Thai-China ties could soon rear its ugly head.

Take the current travel boom, as an example. The Ministry of Tourism and Sport was elated and forecast that at least 6 million Chinese tourists would visit Thailand by year-end, bringing billions of dollars of foreign earnings.

Beyond dollars and cents, none of the Thai agencies are concerned about their "conundrums" and "inadequacies" in engaging with China and its people. More than Thai officials would like to admit, their understanding and awareness of China and its culture is still very low albeit their often superficial comments and proclaim closeness.

To be fair, cultural and educational exchanges between the two countries have increased in past years. With 12 Confucius Institutions and more than 5,000 Chinese language-teaching volunteers, the level of putonghua (Chinese Mandarin) proficiency has never been better for Thais.

Unfortunately, at the working level for the private sector and officials, this language capacity is still insufficient. Former Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai often complained that Thailand did not have good simultaneous interpreters of putonghua.

Last week, at the sea resort of Pattaya, a group of local guides staged a demonstration against Thai-speaking Chinese guides, asking for the government to protect their jobs. Earlier, news about the misuse of public facilities by Chinese tourists was highlighted at the same time when Thai tourists were criticised for behaving mischievously in Japan.

With the presence of large Chinese tourist groups over here year-round, this minor bickering - if left unattended - could lay the seeds of discontent and develop into negative social forces impacting on the health of Thai-China relations in the long-run. Lest we forget, the Thai-Chinese people are the world most connected people. Every day a total of 16,438 Chinese tourists come here, based on projected arrivals this year.

At this juncture, Thailand's Chinese-oriented tourism infrastructure is extremely weak. Concerned officials focus on record-breaking numbers of incoming Chinese tourists without paying attention to the overall local capacity to take care of visitors.

In South Korea, the government has trained local guides to speak putonghua, putting signs in this lan?guage everywhere and coming up with specific traffic plans during the peak hours of Chinese visitors. At major airports, putonghua replaces English as the second preferred language. Within the region, Malaysia and Singapore are better equipped to welcome the influx of Chinese tourists.

In the case of Thailand, local officials and tour operators complacently think that Thai-Chinese culture is very similar, which often leads to all sorts of misunderstandings and sometimes condescending exchanges. There are cultural differences, some subtle and not so subtle, between the two nations. Thais are more comfortable with those from big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, as they are more cosmopolitan.

In the past two years, more Chinese tourists have been coming here from provincial cities. They often choose Thailand as the first destination on the first trip abroad because they feel good - the sense of familiarity, not being alienated, that the Thai ambience can provide. This kind of good sentiment and rapport needs to be carefully nurtured. To do so, the Ministry of Tourism and Sport, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bangkok Metropolitan Administration and provincial authorities must pay extra attention to this phenomenon.

Over the next 40 years, Thai-China relations must be more comprehensive, taking into consideration the fast changing economic and security landscape in the region. As such, it is important to include key areas of strategic interest on both sides as the bilateral relations are still lopsided and heavily focused on economic, trade, investment, cultural and language co-operation.

In the process, Thailand must articulate well what the country wants from China and act accordingly. Since there is no such thing as a free lunch anymore, Thailand also has to reciprocate in ways that ensure mutually beneficial partnerships. China will be featured one way or another in the regional and international scheme of things.

In a few days, Thailand and China will commemorate 40 years of friendship. We must use this occasion to think outside the box and set sail ahead when the headwinds still favour our way.

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