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 border town, sparking both hopes and fears about Beijing’s influence and intent in Thailand.
A top CIA official’s recent visit to Bangkok, during a flurry of lucrative U.S. military and business deals, may lure this longtime American ally to favor the U.S. and not China, but the rivalry is heating up. 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, the 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, and contrast it with the persecution they suffered 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. 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, a former deputy prime minister.
China prizes Thailand partly because this rapidly modernizing Southeast Asian nation has access near Bangkok to the Gulf of Thailand, which opens onto the South China Sea.
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, although the navy wanted 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,” said Adm. Somprasong Nilsamai, the navy’s commander in chief. Bangkok’s budget crunch resulting from COVID-19 may delay the three deliveries.
Belt and Road
In Nong Khai, Thais hope to profit from a sleek $6 billion, 257-mile-long Chinese-built railway across Laos, completed in December under China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
The route links southern China’s Yunnan province to Vientiane, the capital of impoverished, landlocked Laos several miles upriver from Nong Khai.
Imports and exports using the Chinese train at Vientiane must be transferred by road across the Mekong’s bridge to Nong Khai’s railhead, where Thailand’s trains connect to Bangkok and elsewhere.
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.
“Thailand has become a center of bipolar friction between the U.S. and China,” Mr. Chambers said in an interview.
To tighten relations, CIA Deputy Director David Cohen flew to Bangkok in November and met with 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 Thai 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 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. The Trump and Biden administrations both pressed allies around the world not to use Huawei in their networks because of 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,” Mr. Prayuth said.
In the struggle for influence between China and the U.S., the Taliban’s recent victory in Afghanistan after a hasty and chaotic U.S. withdrawal also affected Thailand.
“Many Thai senior security officials were disappointed that the U.S. would leave Afghanistan and give up on an ally,” Mr. Chambers said.
“However,” he said, “by leaving Afghanistan, Washington is paying more attention to East Asia and China and can perhaps offer more military aid to Thailand. That is something that Thailand likes.”
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,” Chief 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. Nearly 100 people, mostly civilians, died in the violence.
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 [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-Chinese cultural council, told the Bangkok Post.
China, he said, “is not invading any country — but rather, more people are embracing China.”
A new generation of Thais is learning about the U.S.-Chinese rivalry.
“Globalization has benefited the poor in China and the rich in the U.S., not the American middle class, prompting [the U.S.] to look for a scapegoat,” Arm Tungnirun, Chulalongkorn University’s Chinese Studies Center director, said at a recent forum.