Thailand’s recently renewed commitment toward finishing the already under-construction Thai-Chinese high-speed railway may help move the Southeast Asian nation forward, out of the shadow of years of Western-induced political instability, and into the light of peace and prosperity as it and the rest of the region rise with China.
The recent announcement has triggered condemnation from Western commentators who support Washington, London, and Brussel’s agenda of maintaining dominance over Asia and shaping Southeast Asia into a united front against a rising China.
As Thailand takes the final steps toward finishing this and other ambitious joint projects with China, the US and its extensive network of political opposition groups both within Thailand and beyond its borders are likely to make an attempt to both block these projects and undermine the government and other interests seeing them through.
Speeding Up Thailand’s High-Speed Railway
China’s Xinhua news agency in an article titled, “Thailand to accelerate construction of China-Thailand railway: PM,” would report that Thailand’s Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin highlighted the importance of the high-speed railway project for regional development and announced plans to speed up construction after years of delays.
The article reported:
“Logistics is one of the significant issues for Thailand regarding BRI cooperation and Thailand will enhance the connection between its domestic railways and the China-Laos Railway, a flagship BRI project in the region,” Srettha said in an interview with Xinhua before his official visit to China earlier this month, during which he also attended the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation.
Thailand has already benefited greatly from the already completed Lao-Chinese high-speed railway. The high-speed railway, connecting Laos (Thailand’s neighbor to the north) to China, also serves as a new route for Thai products to reach Chinese markets, as Global Times reported in its April article, “China-Laos-Thailand freight train completes first heavy-load return trip.”
Currently, Thailand moves goods to the border with Laos via its existing rail and road networks. The completion of a high-speed railway within Thailand itself will supercharge the movement of goods and people both between Thailand and its neighbors, but also within Thailand itself.
A high-speed railway connected to China’s vast domestic high-speed rail network means even greater numbers of Chinese tourists (who already make up the largest number of tourists visiting Thailand) will arrive not only in the capital city of Bangkok, but also in more remote areas so far relatively inaccessible to most tourists.
China has already demonstrated the benefits of its high-speed rail network domestically toward economic development. Expanding it across Southeast Asia means sharing its benefits far beyond China’s own borders.
Asian Cooperation Undermines Western Primacy
Despite Thailand’s eagerness to expand what is clearly already beneficial cooperation with China and the rest of the region, Western publications argue there are “consequences” that await if this and other projects move forward.
The Diplomat, a Western publication partnered with a network of Western government and corporate-funded policy institutes, in its article, “Thailand’s High-Speed Railway: On the Fast Track to Ties With China, But at What Cost?,” attempts to argue against the completion of the Thai-Chinese high-speed railway.
While the project aims to stimulate economic growth and regional development, it has generated significant concerns. They are apprehensive about Thailand’s deepening partnership with China and the resulting increase in integration with the southern neighbor. These concerns encompass worries about potential impacts on Thai national sovereignty, doubts regarding the project’s necessity due to the existing rail connection to Nong Khai, and concerns about the financial involvement of foreign partners, particularly China, which could lead to debt accumulation and economic vulnerabilities.
Nowhere in the article is an attempt made to argue against the Thai administration’s belief that the project will act as “a catalyst for stimulating economic growth and fostering progress in the region.”
And while the article waves around the familiar narrative of Chinese “debt trap diplomacy,” it eventually admits deep within the article that:
Currently, no immediate issues exist, but potential challenges may arise in the future, particularly in the context of maintaining a balanced relationship with major powers like China when engaging with foreign partners.
The article refuses to openly and plainly say what the collective West actually thinks. The West, which had at one point colonized most of Southeast Asia, sees China’s rise and the rest of Asia with it as a closing window of opportunity for reasserting Western primacy over the region.
Thailand’s cooperation with China and the building of tangible infrastructure doesn’t create dangerous “dependency” for Thailand on China, but further reduces Thailand’s vulnerability to US and European coercion. This cooperation also reduces the likelihood of the US successfully containing both China and the rest of Asia’s rise.
Trying to Derail Thailand’s High-Speed Train Ambitions
While this is the real “concern” at heart in articles like from The Diplomat, Western commentators and policymakers find it difficult to say this openly. Western policymakers and commentators instead use “environmental and social” concerns as a pretext to oppose and obstruct such projects.
Western governments also use such pretexts to organize protests and generate opposition against such projects via what are almost exclusively US and European-funded “nongovernmental organizations” (NGOs) and US-European-backed political opposition parties.
Within Thailand, this coalition of US and European-funded organizations and the Move Forward Party have openly opposed any and all cooperation with China, including the construction of the high-speed railway.
Move Forward’s de facto leader, billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit at one point openly opposed the construction of the Thai-Chinese high-speed railway and promoted the construction of the non-existent “hyperloop” instead, Bloomberg reported in its 2018 article, “Thailand Needs Hyperloop, Not China-Built High-Speed Rail, Junta Critic Says.”
In a 2019 public presentation of his “hyperloop” proposal, Thanathorn even went as far as admitting:
I think over the past five years we have been giving too much importance to China. We want to reduce that and rebalance our relationship with Europe, with Japan, [and] with the US more.
Thanathorn never explained in what way Thailand would “rebalance” its relationship with the US and its allies, considering they do not provide alternatives to joint infrastructure projects with China. But judging from recent developments in Ukraine, the Philippines, and the island province of Taiwan, it seems clear that this would involve forgoing economic and infrastructure cooperation with China, and instead, involve transforming Thailand into a battering ram against China.
More recently, Thanathorn attended the 2022 US government-funded (via the Freedom Fund) “Oslo Freedom Forum” held in Taipei, Taiwan. There he vowed support for a variety of US regional projects, including the armed opposition in neighboring Myanmar and US-sponsored separatism in Taiwan itself, as reported by Nikkei Asia. He complained about growing ties with China, once again citing the Thai-Chinese high-speed rail project as an example, failing to explain how the US could offer a comparable or better offer.
Today, Move Forward and a host of US government-funded organizations continue leading opposition to Thailand’s growing ties with China.
It is clear that the US and its proxies do not see cooperation with China and the construction of a high-speed railway as a genuine threat to Thailand, but instead, a threat to Washington’s influence over Thailand and the rest of the region. Without the ability to politically capture and control Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia, the creation of a united front against China becomes unlikely and with it, the continued primacy of the US in Asia becomes impossible.
In reality, the US should not hold primacy over a region of the planet it is not even located in on a map. The US could, however, still play a construction role in Asia. Nations like Thailand are just as eager to cooperate with the US economically as they are with China, given the US demonstrates the same mutual respect China does in regard to the sovereignty of its partners.
While the US may still be able to politically capture and coerce some nations in Asia (the Philippines, for example), many other nations are gaining an opportunity to permanently move out from under the shadow of US coercion and control. Thailand, through projects like the Thai-Chinese high-speed railway, represents just such an opportunity.
Until the US reshapes its own foreign policy into a desire to genuinely cooperate with, rather than impose itself upon other nations, it will continue to face a world increasingly eager to work with others, including China, isolating the US in the process. Only time will tell whether China’s constructive cooperation with others can raise the region up faster than Washington’s current policy of politically capturing nations and turning them against China can drag the region down.
Brian Berletic is a Bangkok-based geopolitical researcher and writer, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.