China-Thailand ties to turn strategic - Yunnan - Kunming 
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China-Thailand ties to turn strategic

By : China Daily | Published: 2013-October-15

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's visit to Thailand is expected to raise Thai-China ties to a higher level, especially in strategic matters.

The change in Thailand's diplomatic outlook is new and still evolving, with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra leading the push. Thailand realizes that this is the time to strengthen friendship with China, especially because the United States changed its Asia policy in November 2011.

Two factors explain this shift in paradigm. First, US President Barack Obama had to cancel his planned trip - for the third time - to the region indicating the diplomatic constraints the White House faces today and will do so in the future. Developments within the US have taken a heavy toll on Washington's diplomacy in Asia. Despite the "pivot to Asia" policy of the US, the Middle East has been the focus of Washington's diplomacy for some time now, heightened by Secretary of State John Kerry's enthusiasm.

As such, Thailand and other ASEAN member states are making efforts to strengthen their friendship and cooperation with China. The general feeling within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is that Chinese leaders do not take regional leaders and their agenda for granted. Of course, Chinese leaders make their presence felt at regional and international meetings, but they follow it up through positive actions. In fact, Chinese leaders have not missed any regional summit since 1997, when they first attended a meeting with their counterparts from ASEAN member states.

Growing economic interdependence is another factor why China has become very important for ASEAN member states. With the exception of the Philippines, almost all ASEAN member states have China as one of their top trading partners.

Under President Xi Jinping, China has intensified its development policies toward ASEAN - the first focuses on increasing direct investment and building infrastructure, especially high-speed trains, and the second is aimed at narrowing the income gap among ASEAN member states. Such an approach will expedite the integration of China's southern region with mainland Southeast Asia beyond the ASEAN community by 2015.

Occupying the center of mainland Southeast Asia, Thailand views itself as the strategic transit point among South, Central and Northeast Asia.

Thailand may be one of the oldest US allies, but Thai leaders now feel that their country has been left out in the cold because of Washington's rebalancing policies. The US' reluctance to engage Thailand - citing the country's messy political situation - has further dampened the 180-year-old friendship. By agreeing to meet Thai leaders for only five minutes on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York, Obama made it clear the place Thailand occupies on the White House's priority list. As a result, despite being eager to attend the General Assembly meeting, Yingluck Shinawatra canceled her planned trip to New York.

For the past few months, Thailand and China have been discussing one of the region's most important and strategic projects that would in the future link China with Singapore by rail, making a 3,000-km journey possible in 24 hours. Thailand knows its commercial and strategic importance as the main transit point both for the East-West and North-South corridors.

For the time being, the rail network will connect Kunming in China's Yunnan province with Vientiane in Laos and Bangkok in Thailand. The proposal is to extend the rail network to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and Singapore. There have been some hiccups over the terms and incentives of the proposed plan. But given the regional leaders' determination, the project is expected to go through.

China's growing regional and international influence also fits into Thailand's overall strategic policy toward major powers in the 21st century. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China's support for Thailand's UN-related activities, including its candidacy for the non-permanent Security Council seat in 2016-17, is pivotal. Gone are the days when Thailand relied on US support only for its multilateral role. Under Yingluck Shinawatra, Thai diplomats are searching for new friends that can help increase Thailand's profile and expand its export market.

Closer ties with China, both economic and strategic, will also send a strong signal to the US that Thailand is willing to move ahead with new partners that offer mutual benefit. Interestingly, even some top Thai security experts support the idea of deepening strategic partnership with China, along with holding joint military training programs and exercises, and increasing arms procurement.

Thailand's strategic blueprint for 2013-16, being worked out by the National Security Council, could reflect this new imperative.

The author is assistant group editor of The Nation in Thailand.

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