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China’s Own Pivot to Asia
Summary:The U.S. isn’t the only one pivoting to Asia. Recent visits to Thailand by U.S. President Obama and Chinese Premier Wen show contrasting approaches in how the two countries are trying to shore up support in the region.


Glances: Obama enjoys a joke with Thai PM Yingluck Shinawatra during a state dinner in Thailand


By Anchalee Kongrut, a journalist from the Bangkok Post who is on exchange with the Economic Observer

A picture is worth a thousand words. This was certainly the case with the image of Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and U.S. president Barack Obama during his visit to Southeast Asia last month.

Putting tabloid buzz aside, the photo reflects a sweet reunion between the two countries. President Obama’s visit marked 180 years of diplomatic relations.

However, the relationship hasn’t been so warm over the last decade. The U.S. has distanced itself from the region since the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 and shifted its foreign policy focus to the Middle East. The departure enabled China to make its presence felt as it gave $4 billion in aid to Thailand and other countries in the region affected by the crisis.

Yet, China’s rise and a shift in America’s War on Terror have now prompted the U.S. to shift foreign policy again and pivot to the Asia Pacific.

The latest reunion seems to have been fruitful. Behind the amicable photo of Obama and Yingluck, the Thai government was on its way to joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) - a negotiation being conducted by the U.S. and other Asia-Pacific nations that excludes China.

Local activists campaigning against the free trade agreement criticized the government for joining, saying it would have adverse economic effects locally. The Foreign Ministry of Thailand has reportedly cautioned that the TPP agreement might overshadow the ASEAN plus formula – which gives China an important role but essentially leaves out the U.S. The TPP is seen as an attempt by the U.S. to regain economic influence in the region.

Apart from the economic partnership, Thailand also signed a military partnership agreement that essentially endorses American presence in the Asia Pacific.

The current Thai government has been attacked by the opposition party for kowtowing to the U.S. while the U.S. has been accused of over-involving itself in Thai politics. Royalists and the opposition party also accused the U.S. of siding with the Red Shirt movement, which supports the current government and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra - brother of the current prime minister.

Criticism from opposition groups carried special weight earlier this year when the U.S. government made an official request to use the U-Tapao Airport as a post for NASA climate atmospheric research and humanitarian disaster relief missions.

International media, including Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, reported that the U.S. may intend to use the U-Tapao Airport as part of a military strategy to contain China. Since then, politicians on the government side have come out to support the U.S. request, despite mounting criticism about a hidden agenda.

The airport is located in an area between the Indian Ocean and South China Sea and was once used as an airbase for the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. At that time, B-52 bombers would stop and refuel before flying to drop bombs and Agent Orange on Vietnam. There have been media reports that the U.S. is still using this airport to transport soldiers and prisoners.

Earlier this year, a parliamentary session convened and voted down the U.S. request to use the airport citing state sovereignty. National security analysts have advised Thailand to stay out of the geopolitical battle between the U.S. and China.

Beijing and the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok have stayed quiet until recently. After Obama left the region, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao paid visits to many countries in Southeast Asia. In Bangkok, he managed to spring a surprise when he signed a deal with the Thai government signaling China’s intention to buy five million metric tons of rice from Thailand annually for three years. This deal is more than a trade agreement; it’s a political lifesaver for the ruling Puea Thai Party (For Thai Party).

The Puea Thai Party-led government has been heavily attacked for its rice subsidy plan. Known for doling out populist policy in order to win votes, the government used state funds to buy rice from farmers and middle men. It told the public that the subsidy funds wouldn’t be lost because the government would sell at a higher price afterward. However, the price of rice in world markets is not rising as the Thai government expected and rice has a shorter shelf life than oil or mineral resources. Even worse, the opposition party revealed corruption through proxy companies set up in order to profit from reselling subsidized rice.

The deal allows China to buy whenever it wants for whatever the fluctuating market price is, making it largely symbolic.  But it’s given the Puea Thai Party some room to breathe and let China reassert itself by showing it’s willing to help a friend in need.

Premier Wen’s itinerary in Bangkok also showed how good Beijing can be at bilateral friendship diplomacy. While the U.S. is being seen as imposing, China’s role in Thailand is perceived as that of a powerful, but non-intrusive friend. Besides signing the rice deal, Wen also visited the King of Thailand (which every leader must do!). But the more noteworthy visit was with the Privy Council – the powerful advisory committee to the King. Beijing sent a loud and clear message: China is a friend of Thailand and not just playing politics.

Beijing is getting closer to the Puea Thai Party. Former Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, brother-in-law of Thaksin Shinawatra, visited Beijing earlier this month to meet with Liu Yunshan, a new member of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party. The visit was seen as the first official exchange between the two ruling parties.

Moves like this show that the U.S. isn’t the only one with an Asian pivot strategy. China is also pivoting in its own subtle way. In the Mekong Region, China is pivoting by giving financial aid for railway networks in Laos and Thailand. In Cambodia, it pivots through major investment and winning the people’s hearts through loyal friendship to the late King Norodom Sihanouk.

In Thailand, China’s government is showing its pivot through rice bowl diplomacy. As usual, it’s doing so quietly and subtly.


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