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Sino-Thai friendship can weather a royal succession, analysts say

The Thai royal family has a long history with China, and King Bhumibol Adulyadej has met most Chinese leaders since Beijing and Bangkok re-established diplomatic ties in the late 1970s.

Ascending to the throne in 1946, the American-born King Bhumibol was one of the few foreign heads of state that late leader Deng Xiaoping met soon after he regained power in November 1978, after the Cultural Revolution. Deng paid his first visit to Southeast Asia, and Thailand was first stop before Singapore and Malaysia.

During the five-day visit, Deng held talks with King Bhumibol in his palace and was later invited to attend the ordination ceremony hosted by the king for the crown prince, Maha Vajiralongkorn, then 26 years old.

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Deng accepted the invitation and was the one who handed the crown prince a saffron robe – a move Chinese state media later said had won Deng “the heart of people in Thailand”, where most of the population practise Buddhism.

Though the king rarely travels abroad, he has met almost every top Chinese leader that has visited his country since bilateral relations resumed in 1975.

In 1999, then Chinese president Jiang Zemin paid a state visit to Thailand at the invitation of the king and queen, who hosted a welcome ceremony at the airport and a state banquet in the Grand Palace for Jiang and his wife Wang Yeping.

In 2001, the king met Zhu Rongji, then Chinese premier, in the summer palace in Hua Hin, Thailand’s royal seaside resort. The king also meet then vice-president Hu Jintao in 2000 and then vice-president Xi Jinping in 2011.

King Bhumibol has been widely praised for his efforts to improve conditions for rural Thais, and he expressed to the Chinese leaders his interest in China’s progress in agricultural development and water conservancy.

At the centre of the Indo-Chinese peninsula in Southeast Asia, Thailand is of strategic importance to big powers.

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A long-term treaty ally with the United States, Thailand was suspicious of communist China in the cold war years of the 1950s to the early 1970s, said Dr Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

“For good reason at the time, the threat of communist expansionism from both China and the Soviet Union was an existential danger to Thailand’s military and monarchy,” he said.

But bilateral ties, boosted mainly by economic cooperation, have been solid since the normalisation of ties, particularly in the past over two decades of China’s economic rise.

One “most vivid symbol”, said Pongsudhirak, was the role of Princess Sirindhorn, the second daughter of King Bhumibol. She speaks fluent Chinese and visits the country regularly, and among the Thai royal family members she is seen as closest to China.

The princess studied at China’s prestigious Peking University, and was named by Beijing as a “people’s friendship ambassador” for her efforts to boost exchanges between the two nations.

During a visit to China last year, the princess told Chinese media that she once read the Thai version of Mao Zedong’s “little red book”, and was a fan of Sichuan cuisine.

Maha Vajiralongkorn, who was designated as crown prince and heir-apparent by King Bhumibol in 1972, is less familiar in China. He has visited Beijing twice – in the early spring of 1987 when he was welcomed at a ceremonial reception hosted by then vice-premier Wan Li in Beijing, and again in 1992 when he led a delegation to China.

The prince’s daughter, Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana, had training in badminton in Guangzhou in 2002 before she represented Thailand in the sport at the Southeast Asian Games in 2005, when she shared a team gold.

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One thing keeping Sino-Thai relations warm is the fact that Chinese ancestry is common to Thais in all walks of life, including the royal family. In a lecture to the Asia Society in Hong Kong in 2012, Princess Sirindhorn said her family followed some Chinese traditions, like paying respect to ancestors at the Lunar New Year.

Zhou Fangzhi, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the Thai royal family had traditionally maintained a friendly relationship with China, and the king’s influence was mainly felt in domestic rather than diplomatic matters. Therefore, Beijing had few reasons to worry about a possible succession, Zhou said.

Bangkok also had a history of balancing its diplomacy among major powers, Zhou said, particularly between the US and China, which meant it was unlikely to side too closely with either.

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Compared with other nations in Southeast Asia like Vietnam – which shares a similar Communist ideology but is ensnared in maritime disputes with China – Sino-Thai relations appear to be more stable. The construction of a billion-dollar Sino-Thai rail project is set to restart by the end of this year, and the two countries held a joint military exercise last month.

Zhou noted that Thailand was the only country in Southeast Asia that had no historic disputes with China, and that Bangkok was neutral on South China Sea issues.

“Given the prosperous economic cooperation, it is unlikely we will see any significant change in bilateral ties, even if the king changes,” he said.