This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 08 BANGKOK 007313
DEPARTMENT FOR EAP, EAP/BCLTV AND EAP/CM DEFENSE FOR OSD/ISA PACOM FOR FPA HUSO
E.O. 12958: DECL: 10/01/2014 TAGS: PREL MASS PGOV TH CH ASEAN BURMA SUBJECT: THAI VIEWS OF A MORE ASSERTIVE CHINA
REF: BANGKOK 4085
Classified By: Ambassador Darryl N. Johnson. Reasons 1.4 (a and d)
1. (C) Summary. When analyzing China's growing influence in the region, Thai experts tend to: accept China's growing power as inevitable; hope that problems associated with China's growing strength will either fix themselves or be mitigated by other powers like the United States or India; and, keep their fingers crossed that trade deals with China lead to growth in Thailand without destroying domestic enterprises. Thai analysts note that China is deftly building up good will in the region to assuage any concerns about hegemony. Perhaps naively, they tend to discount notions that China will jeopardize its generally good relations in the region in the near future by pressuring ASEAN nations to support Beijing on political or strategic issues.
2. (C) Thai experts tend to view China's growing role as either not affecting the influence of other countries or as coming at the expense of Taiwan and Japan rather than the United States. Nonetheless, some warn that China's growing role in the region comes at a time when the United States appears preoccupied in the Middle East and with the War on Terror. The MFA believes that it will be 15 years before China could pose a security threat to the region and expects the U.S.-Thai security alliance to counter any future threat. While almost all experts note the generally positive nature of Sino-Thai links -- pointing to China's help during conflicts with Laos and Cambodia, China's positive role during the Asian financial crisis and China's signing with ASEAN the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea -- they also point to the growing possibility of contention in several fields: trade, Burma, energy, and Chinese development in the upper Mekong River region. Undermining their analysis, Thai government analysts notably tend to discount the possibility of internal unrest, demographic problems or economic upheaval upsetting current growth patterns inside China. Similarly, they tend not to focus on the possibility of conflict between Taiwan and the Mainland -- an attitude criticized by some in academia and the media as overly optimistic. Thai Government experts would benefit from opportunities to share views on China's role in the region with U.S. delegations. End Summary.
PALPABLE INTEREST IN THINGS CHINESE
3. (SBU) China's cultural influence continues to expand in Thailand in obvious ways. In 2003, according to the Thai National Statistical Office, 624,214 PRC citizens visited Thailand, making it the 6th largest source of tourists to the country (after Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore). The 15 percent of Thais who are ethnic Chinese seem to take a greater pride in their heritage -- notably, some now use their Chinese surnames along with their Thai ones. The number of Mandarin language schools is growing at the same time Japanese language studies are declining. Thai sports fans openly pulled for Chinese athletes in the Olympics in ways they've never supported Japanese or other Asian competitors in the past. PRC-owned English-language CCTV Channel 9 is very popular in Thailand and Mandarin broadcasts on CCTV Channel 4 are readily available. The foreign news editor for the national television network Channel 9 reported that his station has signed a cooperative agreement with CCTV. According to the editor, Channel 9 airs around four direct feeds from CCTV at the top of its international news every morning. The English-language newspaper The China Daily plans to open a publishing operation in Bangkok in 2005. The Xinhua news agency is quite active and regularly places stories about "progress" in Tibet and Han-Uighur "cooperation" in Xinjiang. Beijing sponsors cultural and educational programs throughout the country and has invested heavily in subsidizing Mandarin training centers. Thai journalists are regular beneficiaries of Beijing-funded junkets to China. A recent trip to Tibet for ten Thai journalists resulted in a number of glowing stories in Thai papers about the benevolence of Chinese rule in Lhasa. Chinese and Thai diplomats express solidarity openly.
CHINA'S RISE IS INEVITABLE
4. (C) Thai military, intelligence and foreign policy analysts at the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), National Defense Studies Institute (NDSI) and MFA tend to view China's growing influence in Southeast Asia as inevitable. This attitude was probably best described by Thongchai Chasiawath, Counselor for the MFA's Third Asian Division, who recently said "everyone is scared of the China threat, but if you can't fight it, you must accept it and become its friend. Build ties with that threat so that if they ever do hit you, they hit their own interests." Rudiwan Kateluxana of the NIA said "we have no other option but to accept China's offer for closer economic links -- the opportunity is too great. Nonetheless, we have to be cognizant that China is also a competitor. Our challenge during the next few years as we use our Free Trade Agreement with China to export our agricultural goods, is to improve our competitiveness in other areas." CAPT Nopadon Suwanapong of the military's Strategic Research Institute (SRI), said that "the concept of the 'China Threat' in traditional strategic terms is gone, to be replaced by the concept of China as trading partner and economic engine." Several contacts hope that risks to Thailand posed by a rising China can be offset by continuing strong links with the United States and, to a lesser extent, with India.
WINNING GOODWILL BY GOOD BEHAVIOR
5. (C) Most Thai experts acknowledge the deft diplomacy China recently has used to help reassure ASEAN countries in general and Thailand in particular that China is a peaceful neighbor. They cite China signing the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), ASEAN Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, China's leadership role in the Six-Party Talks on Korea, the China-ASEAN Strategic partnership and the China-ASEAN Joint Declaration on Non-Traditional Threats as evidence of China's growing trustworthiness. Thongchai at MFA believes that Hu Jintao and the other fourth generation leaders in the PRC are much more adept at building regional ties than Jiang Zemin was. "Hu is building bridges to the EU and to ASEAN in a way Jiang never did; Jiang was much more concerned with having strong ties with the United States," he said. CAPT Arna Charanyananda, J-2 staff officer at the Joint Staff College, sees China's signing the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea as an example of Beijing putting its desire to win influence in the region ahead of its short-term national interest -- a view echoed by Rudiwan at the NIA. "Ten years ago, China repeatedly threatened to use force over the Spratleys," Rudiwan explained; "today, it has renounced the use of force." SRI's Nopadon thinks that, by tying China to regional security protocols, ASEAN is helping to ensure that China will act more responsibly.
ECONOMIC LINKS ARE SEDUCTIVE
6. (C) In addition to China making effective diplomatic moves, all of the Thai China watchers interviewed for this message agree that the desire to have access to China's market is the major driving factor in Thailand's growing links with the PRC. According to the Customs Department of Thailand, in 2003 Thailand exported 235 billion baht (5.73 billion dollars) of goods to China, a 54 percent increase over 2002. Also in 2003, Thailand imported 203 billion baht (4.95 billion dollars) worth of goods from the PRC, a decline of 4 percent from 2002. The October 2003 Sino-Thai Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and the 2002 Sino-ASEAN FTA have many Thai companies eager to sell their wares in China. Rudiwan believes that growing economic competition between China and the United States is good for medium-sized economies like Thailand's. Suvapan Tamyuwattana, Director of NIA's Division One, noted that many ASEAN leaders, including some in Thailand, now subscribe to the Chinese maxim, "what is good for China is good for the rest of Asia." MFA's Thongchai pointed out that PM Thaksin agrees with the maxim that "a rich China will lead to a prosperous Asia" and claims that Chinese leaders who promote economic links with Thailand are "knocking on an open door." Thongchai sees Thailand as uniquely situated to serve as a bridge between China and the rest of ASEAN. He is optimistic that China will expand road links to Thailand, passing through Laos and Burma, linking the two countries.
7. (SBU) Public perceptions of the impact of the FTA affecting agricultural goods are quite different than the optimistic view Thai analysts tend to hold. 87 percent of the items covered by the Sino-Thai FTA are fruits and vegetables. According to the Customs Department of Thailand, from October 2003 until September 2004 the value of Thai fruit exported to China under the FTA was 3.43 billion baht (83 million dollars), a 37 percent increase from the previous 12 months. For the same period, however, Chinese exports of fruit to Thailand were worth 1.28 billion baht (31 million dollars) an increase of 125 percent over the previous 12 months. For the same period, the value of Thai vegetables exported to China was 8.13 billion baht (198 million dollars) a 73 percent increase over the previous year while Chinese exports of vegetables to Thailand were worth 3.06 billion baht (76 million dollars) a 120 percent increase. Press reports and public comments on the FTA Early Harvest pact have focused on its impact on Thai farmers in the north of the country who have reportedly been overwhelmed by cheaper and better Chinese agricultural products such as garlic and onions. Experts complain that the RTG, which was urged to quickly conclude the agreement by PM Thaksin, did not seriously study the impact of the agreement nor draw up plans to help those negatively affected by it. In addition, critics complain that Thai negotiators did not understand or anticipate the difficulties faced by intra-provincial trade in China, or the effect that excise taxes, documentation requirements and other non-tariff barrier would have on Thai products going into China. Ministry of Commerce officials admit this lapse and say that it has been a good learning experience. Interestingly, the Thai public seems to blame the RTG for rushing into the agreement rather than the Chinese for benefiting from it.
MILITARY TO MILITARY LINKS WITH CHINA
8. (C) Thailand continues to have good relations with the Chinese military. The Chinese military attache in Bangkok is a Brigadier General. Chinese defense sales delegations visit Bangkok frequently. Many Thai military officers are appreciative of China's assistance in supplying small arms, tanks and artillery shells during conflicts involving Laos and Cambodia and every year a number of Thai officers receive military training in China. Nonetheless, Thai officers acknowledge a vast disparity between Thailand's military links with the United States and links with the PRC. "Most of the equipment we received from China was not of good quality when we received it and it is all outdated now," General Ronachuck Swasdikiat, former Commanding General of the National Defense Studies Institute, said. NIA's Suvapan notes the growing number of security seminars and dialogues Thailand and ASEAN countries have with China and expects these to continue to increase. However, a number of Thai military officers are quick to emphasize that China's influence on the Thai military is minuscule compared to that of the United States. "For every one officer we send to Beijing for training, we send 400 to the United States," one explained.
DIPLOMATIC PRESENCE IN BANGKOK
9. (C) PRC diplomats in Bangkok have told U.S. Embassy officials that they view the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok as Beijing's leading diplomatic presence in ASEAN. Chinese Ambassador Zhang Jiuhuan is a polished professional -- a veteran of two previous tours to Bangkok and one in Singapore -- who speaks excellent Thai and English. Mid-level Chinese Embassy staff tend to be much more professional than their predecessors. The PRC Embassy in Bangkok has done a masterful job of reaching out to Sino-Thais. While attending a large PRC-hosted function that included several hundred ethnic-Chinese Thai nationals, one senior Chinese official proudly claimed that "ten years ago this would have been Taiwan's crowd." Thai military and government officials attended PRC National Day on October 1 in large numbers and at senior levels.
CHINA AND THAKSIN
10. (C) Allegations that Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is under Beijing's spell are rife in Bangkok. Outspoken Thaksin critic Kavi Chongkittavorn of the Nation calls Thaksin "China's deputy sheriff." Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University claims that Thaksin's decision to single out and expel Falun Gong adherents from Bangkok in preparation for 2003's APEC Leaders Summit was directly due to pressure from Chinese leaders (NOTE: Falun Gong adherents also were not tolerated under the previous Thai administration). Thitinan and Kavi both claim Thaksin has been receptive to overtures from Beijing in order to win contracts for Thaksin's family multinational company, Shin Corporation. They point to a recent telecom license deal involving Shin's IPStar broadband satellite system and the China Satellite Communications Corporation (Chinasat) as an example of how China has rewarded Thaksin for his support of closer business links.
CHINA'S RISE COMING AT WHOSE EXPENSE?
11. (C) Many Thai analysts believe that both Japan and Taiwan are losing influence to a rising China. Rudiwan notes that China's growing influence in the region comes at a time when Japan is declining in power and the United States is preoccupied in the Middle East and with the War on Terror. She suggests that ASEAN countries are improving ties with China to take into account China's rise and to hedge bets in case the United States remains occupied elsewhere. Rudiwan also points out that China's effective use of Free Trade Agreements with ASEAN countries make those countries more linked to China and cut Taiwan out. In 2003, according to the Customs Department of Thailand, Thai exports to Taiwan were worth 108 billion baht (2.63 billion dollars), or 46 percent of exports to the PRC. In 2001, Thai exports to Taiwan were worth 85 billion baht (2.07 billion dollars) or 67 percent of the value of exports to the Mainland. In 2001, more Taiwanese than mainland tourists visited Thailand but those numbers have reversed since then. Nopadon sees participation in regional meetings as an effective bellwether of influence. He notes the growing number of Chinese scholars at conferences outlining the future of Southeast Asia and sees fewer and fewer Japanese scholars attending. Kavi Chonkittavorn claims that contacts between senior Thai and Chinese leaders are much more frequent than they were in the past and seem to be coming at the expense of meetings between Thai and Japanese leaders.
12. (C) Political Minister Hasegawa Susumu and First Secretary Hajime Kishimori of the Japanese Embassy in Bangkok
SIPDIS are also convinced that China's growing role in Southeast Asia is coming at Japan's expense. They privately lament that Tokyo does not seem to have a coherent strategy to reengage with the region. MFA's Thongchai also believes China's growing role is coming at a time when Japan's influence is declining. He thinks that it would be good for U.S. interests if Washington were to urge Japan to take a more active leadership role in fora affecting Thailand.
CHINA TAKING OVER ASEAN?
13. (C) Many analysts suspect China's participation in the ASEAN region is an attempt to further expand its influence, perhaps at the expense of the United States. Arna of the Joint Staff College describes China's "partnership strategy" as the means by which China hopes to emerge as a long-term counterweight to the United States in the region. Under this "partnership strategy" China stresses the need for multilateral approaches in ASEAN and ARF as the best means to solve regional problems. China is also not hesitant to play up its role as a member of the UNSC P-5. While Arna believes China wishes to use only economic influence in the near-term, he is convinced that China's ultimate aim is to replace the United States as the strongest power in the region. Rudiwan at NIA claims that every country in ASEAN remains quietly suspicious of China's real agenda in the region and is concerned about its influence in ASEAN. Nonetheless, she notes, so far the attractiveness of the China market coupled with China's good behavior in North Korea and the Spratleys has more than offset that suspicion. MFA's Thongchai also believes that China wants ASEAN to be "China-centric" and is convinced of China's long-term goal to supplant the United States in the region. However, he discounts concerns that China will be able to exercise power on a par with the United States for decades. On the other hand, Nopadon believes that China's growing role in ASEAN will not allow the organization to act contrary to China's wishes ten years from now.
UNITED STATES REMAINS THE PREEMINENT POWER
14. (C) General Ronachuck observed that Thailand is not about to replace the United States with China as its strategic partner; "we are cordial with China, we are allies with the United States, and that's not about to change" he said. NIA's Suvapan goes further by saying "We recognize that China is trying to use growing economic ties to create an atmosphere of political and security dependence, but this issue is quite sensitive among Thai senior officials who intend to rely on the United States as the prime guarantor of security in the region for the foreseeable future." MFA's Thongchai thinks that, to counter the risk of a rising China, Thailand will need to rely more strongly on the bilateral relationship with the United States. He does not see this as a zero sum game, however, noting that if China and the United States can continue to improve relations with each other, they could work jointly in the region to promote stability.
PEACEFUL COEXISTENCE -- ARE THAIS NAIVE?
15. (C) Most of the analysts interviewed seem convinced that China's impressive economic growth will continue for the next several years uninterrupted. None seem willing to seriously entertain the notion that China's huge unemployment figure, overheated financial sector, insolvent banks, aging population or underdeveloped interior might upset the economic juggernaut. As a result, Thai analysts seem unable to consider moves a struggling China might make that could jeopardize regional security. COL Thavin Akaramathayut, J-3 Staff officer at the Joint Staff College, realizes that China must continue to maintain a high level of economic growth in order to modernize and believes that China will be unwilling to jeopardize Southeast Asia's peaceful environment for the foreseeable future. Nopadon is also generally optimistic about China's emerging role in Southeast Asia and seemed unwilling to consider alternative scenarios where internal problems cause China to act aggressively to divert domestic attention. Thongchai at MFA is convinced that Chinese leaders will not make any aggressive moves in the region for the foreseeable future; "their number one concern is to maintain Party control and they will do nothing to jeopardize the economic growth that allows the Party to remain in power." He added, "China can't afford a war over Taiwan, it would kill economic growth." Rudiwan agreed by saying, "We are not sure that China would use force against Taiwan; in the near term we think China wishes not to jeopardize its economic development. In the future, however, we are not sure what China's long range strategy is." She added, "We believe the United States will continue to successfully use influence over Taiwan to prevent Taipei from declaring independence."
OVERLY ROSY PICTURE?
16. (C) General (ret.) Teerawat Putamanonda, an influential thinker on a number of security issues, is concerned that Thai leaders have too rosy an opinion of future relations with China. "I think they are not considering our potential points of conflict carefully enough," he cautioned. Teerawat is especially concerned that China's growing influence in Burma will undermine Thailand's interests there and hurt efforts to stop the drug trade between Thailand and Burma. Doctor Panitan Wattanayagorn of Chulalongkorn University said that, while Thailand should not overlook the possible benefits of closer ties with the PRC, it is in Thailand's best interests to think about less sanguine possibilities. Panitan thinks that Thai analysts covering China could gain much by having more regular meetings with U.S. counterparts.
SOME AREAS OF DISAGREEMENT STARTING TO APPEAR
17. (C) While noting the generally good relationship between China and ASEAN countries, some analysts predict that the number of contentious issues will grow as China becomes stronger. Thongchai noted how forcefully Beijing responded to Singapore PM Lee Hsian Loong's recent trip to Taipei and expressed concern over how abjectly Singapore apologized and made amends for the "offense." Kavi of the Nation finds it significant that ASEAN resisted Chinese overtures to accede to the protocol of the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone but is skeptical that the effort may have served as a wake up call to ASEAN leaders that they need to stand up to Beijing more frequently. Joe Horn, an Anglo-Thai businessman with offices in Bangkok and Beijing believes that trade friction between Thailand and China will only increase. "It's fairly easy to avoid the political hotbuttons with Beijing -- Tibet, Falun Gong, Taiwan -- but as more and more Thai consumer companies are undercut by cheap Chinese imports, there will be a growing call to protect Thai industry," he predicted. Thongchai at MFA and General Teerawat believe that Burma will become an increasingly large irritant between China and Thailand. Thongchai believes that Chinese efforts to reach the Andaman Sea through Burma are at odds with Thailand's interests in having Chinese goods bound for ASEAN pass through Thailand.
18. (C) General Ronachuck believes that China's planned dams along the upper Mekong River will give it a great deal of influence over countries downriver. SRI's Nopadon foresees Mekong subregional development and the drive to find new sources of fossil fuels as the two issues most likely to cause bilateral problems between China and Thailand. He sees energy security as second only to Taiwan as a potential cause for China to use force in the region. Nopadon described Beijing's attitude towards Taiwan as "irrational" and, looking at Chinese spectators' behavior during the recent Asian Games, expressed concern about rising nationalism in the PRC. LTG Tanongsuk Tuvinun, Superintendent of the National Defense College, is also skeptical that Thailand can avoid economic disagreements with China; "China says it does not want to be a superpower, but it seems to be moving in that way by acquiring better defense technology, improving its space program and modernizing its military. Every country looks at China as a potential export market, yet look around at how many companies import far more from China than they export there."
WHEN COULD CHINA POSE A SECURITY THREAT?
19. (C) NIA's Rudiwan concludes that China will continue to try to use its economic clout to influence ASEAN countries in the political and security fields. Nonetheless, she doesn't see China as an outright security threat for several years. Thongchai predicts it will be 2020 at the earliest before China will have the potential to pose a military threat to Thailand. If present economic trends continue and China can maintain 7 percent annual growth, Thongchai believes China could have the means to possess three or four aircraft carriers by 2020.
20. (C) While Thailand's desire to see China emerge in the future as a responsible member of the international community are in line with our objectives, Thai analysis of the ramifications of China's growing influence seems inadequate and overly optimistic. RTG economic officials seem unable to gauge the impact of many of Thailand's recent trade deals with China, and Thai strategic thinkers seem overly sanguine about the effect China's rise will have on the security situation in the region. Thailand's close ties with the PRC give Thai sinologists some insights that might be beneficial to American experts. A regular exchange of views between Thai and U.S. sinologists could improve our insights into Chinese policies and practices in this region while helping the Thais to improve their analysis. End Comment. JOHNSON