A Buddhist shrine on Thailand's side of the Mekong River at Nong Khai, with Laos in the background, offers calm while "Thailand has become a center of bipolar friction between the U.S. and China."   Image credit Richard Ehrlich

NONG KHAI, Thailand -- You can see 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, sparking hopes and fears about Beijing's influence and intent in Thailand.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) chief's recent visit to Bangkok amid a flurry of lucrative U.S. military and business deals, may lure Thailand to favor the U.S. and not China in the future, but the rivalry is heating up.

"Thailand has been leaning toward China, and away from the U.S., for two decades," said Benjamin Zawacki, Bangkok-based American author of "Thailand: Shifting Ground Between the U.S. and a 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 Chinese ancestry which dates back more than 700 years, in contrast to the persecution they suffered in Thailand 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 political frenzy, amid 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 countries" in Southeast Asia, said Thai-Chinese Cultural Relationship Council president Pinit Jarusombat, a former deputy prime minister.

Thailand is prized by China partly because this rapidly modernizing Southeast Asian nation enjoys access near Bangkok to the Gulf of Thailand, which opens onto the South China Sea.

Beijing and Washington have dangerously opposing views about the South China Sea's territorial 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, despite the navy wanting 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 you describe [about submarines] is the rivalry in action," Mr. Zawacki said.

"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," Navy Chief Admiral Somprasong Nilsamai said on January 6.

Bangkok's budget crunch due to Covid-19 may delay the three deliveries.

Here in Nong Khai, Thais hope to profit from a sleek $6 billion, 257-mile (414-km) long, Chinese-built railway across Laos, completed in December under China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The new route links southern China's Yunnan province to Vientiane, capital of impoverished, landlocked Laos several miles upriver across from Nong Khai.

Imports and exports utilizing 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 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 Thailand's politics, economy and regional security.

Ford Motor Co. meanwhile announced in December it would invest $900 million to its upgrade car assembly factories in Thailand. 

Other U.S. firms also promised new investments. America is 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 Foreign Ministry spokesman Tanee Sangrat.

"The country has not been bypassed by the U.S." Mr. Tanee said.

Thailand meanwhile is enthusiastically integrating China's Huawei 5G telecommunications systems, including smartphones, cloud computing, fiber infrastructure, medical services, and artificial intelligence.

"I am deeply impressed by Huawei's history and dedication," Prime Minister Prayuth said.

The Taliban's recent victory over the U.S. in Afghanistan also had a knock-on effect in 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, 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."

For example, Air Chief Marshal Napadej Dhupatemiya wants to purchase eight Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth combat jets to replace aging F-5s 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," ACM Napadej said on January 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 Bangkok's pro-democracy insurrection in 2010 during which nearly 100 people, mostly civilians, died.

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 America's failed 1960-75 regional Vietnam War.

Ghosts from that bloodshed still haunt relations.

"We should not follow the path of a nation [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 told the Bangkok Post.

A new generation of Thais are also being taught about the U.S.-China rivalry.

"Globalization has benefitted the poor in China and the rich in the U.S., not the American middle class, prompting them [the U.S.] to look for a scapegoat," Chulalongkorn University's Chinese Studies Center director Arm Tungnirun told a recent forum.


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent
reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his two new nonfiction
books, "Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. -- Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos,
Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York" and "Apocalyptic Tribes,
Smugglers & Freaks" are available at