CHINA-THAILANDRELATIONS AND ITS EFFECT ON AUSTRALIA
CHINA-THAILANDRELATIONS AND ITS EFFECT ON AUSTRALIA
Diplomaticand trade relations in the Indochina region (mainlandSoutheast Asia)have grabbed global attention in the past several years. For manyyears, and especially during the Cold War era, the region experiencedfrosty foreign relations amongst its members. The main powerhouses inAsia then, India and China, developed close ties with Soviets duringthis period though India claimed non-alignment.1The two large countries also managed to exert influence in theIndochina region regarding taking sides with either the Americans orthe Soviets. Any form of alignment in these countries would alsoimpact relations with other countries including Australia.2Based on the progression of China-Thailand relationships, a look athow it affects other players in the equation is necessary. Mostimportantly, Australia and Thailand compete for Chinese tradepartnerships. Thus, Sino-Thai relations needed to be examined on howthey affect Sino-Australia relations.
Intoday’s globalized world, developments in the region havefar-reaching implications on other countries in the world andespecially Australia. Starting with the Vietnamese aggression towardsCambodia and by extension to Thailand and China created majortensions that threatened diplomatic and trade relations.3In recent times, the region’ importance and relevance toAustralia’s foreign relations, as indicated by rising trade volumesbetween Australia and its members, has intensified underlining theneed to secure the bond. For instance, international trade betweenAustralia and Malaysia recorded a 6.3% jump since 2011. Trade withASEAN countries accounts for 14.8% of Australia’s foreign tradewith Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand accounting for over half of thisvolume.4
Inthe global arena, much has been discussed over China’s imminentthreat in deposing the US as the world’s strongest economy anddominant player in the global trade. While some interpret thesedevelopments as a threat to the status quo,1others such as countries from the South East Asia see them as ablessing. For instance, the rise of China has increased the country’soutward direct investment (ODI) to Thailand and Australia, with thetwo being the top beneficiaries as of 2001.2Thus,the growth of China has stimulated economic growth in Australia andother ASEAN members.1This is in spite of accusations levied against the US of attemptingto sabotage China’s relationship with Thailand and Australia amongother Asian countries at the height of the Cold War as a bid tothwart the spread of Communism.3In fact, Australia has military-intelligence associations with Japan,India, Singapore, Vietnam and other regional powers designed to checkChinese maritime power.5
ASEANcountries have shown their acute awareness to China’s position inthe global political power play and regional influence. Thailand hasshown increased interest in liaising with China on various levelsbesides trade and cultural and social matters by mobbing to militarycooperation.6Some experts argue that renewed interests by ASEAN countries in Chinaare clearly strategic positioning to benefit from the country’smeteoric rise.7,8Ideally,countries in the Indochina region that have traditionally opposedChinese communists policies have changed their attitude towardsChina. This is indicated by open-arms policies to Chinese nationalsinto these countries. This has allowed Chinese citizens to spreadtheir nationalism spirit in Thailand and other countries to create asense of cosmopolitanism.2These citizens have created new nodes for cultural and socialrelations between China and her neighbors and enabled her to advanceher soft power approach. However, during the cold War era, Thailandwas cold towards Chinese nationals and embarked on assimilatingChinese nationals into Thai culture including compelling individualsto drop their Chinese names.9,10All these have changed with a more logical approach to cooperation.
Thecultural and geographical proximity between China and Thailandcompared to that of Australia may favor the Thai people more.Although China and Thailand share no common border, the countries areseparated by a relatively thin strip of Laos and Vietnam.11The main connection between the two countries is via sea routes.However, the lack of a common border has not prevented cross-bordermigration with the Chinese population in Thailand estimated to be twoto three million people as of the late 1960s.3This allowed for shared dialects and cross-cultural understandingbetween the Chinese and Thai people. In comparison, the Chinesepopulation in Australia numbers close to a million and the culturaldistance between the two groups of people is relatively big.
Furthermore,since the beginning of the 20thcentury, Australia has been reluctant to establish relations withChina. During the first half of the 20thcentury, Australia did not enjoy much freedom in its foreign policyrelations as it was still a dominion of the UK. Again, during theCold War era, Australia was strongly aligned to the US therebyshelving any pro-China policies. However, with time, the US realizedthat China was such a big market that she could not be ignored. Thismarked the beginning of tighter Sino-America relations that triggeredother Western nations including Australia to follow suit. Thus, up todate, there are strong Sino-Australian relations. Such relations havealso ushered in relationships with other ASEAN members andspecifically Thailand as a close partner of China. There are over25,000 Thai students in Australia annually while close to a millionAustralians visit Thailand as tourists. Australia’s acceptance ofrelations with Asian countries closely follows the steps of her mainallies, the UK and US.12These two countries clearly recognize the role of Australia as apowerhouse and major ally in the global anti-terror war.
Onthe contrary, Sino-Thai relations have advanced beyond diplomatic andtrade relations to political and military. Since the late 20thcentury when South East region experienced economic turmoil, Chinahas been on the onslaught to dent America’s influence in theregion. This came in the form of funding to these countries tojumpstart their economies. Unlike the America-dominated InternationalMonetary Fund (IMF), whose funding is characterized by stringentrequirements and oversight, the Chinese assistance was more relaxed.13Again, when Thailand faced a coup in 2006 that deposed ThaksinShinawatra, the US approached the issue nonchalantly compared toChina that offered more support to the government. Further to that,the two countries have made agreements on military cooperation. Chinahas embarked on a military upgrade program in Thailand. The two armedforces have been conducting joint military training exercises as amove seen on strengthening China’s military influence and winallies in the Southeast Asia regional power play. Moreover, China andThailand’s close cultural ties ensure that the Thai people feelthat the Chinese are more responsive to their needs compared to otherWestern countries.14
Thus,it can be said that the progress and advancement of Sino-Thai tiescould pose a threat to Sino-Australia relations. For one, China iseager to spread her political and military influence that Australiais not ready to accept. Although the Thailand and Australia arecompeting for China’s foreign trade, Australia still retains herunique position in attracting ODI through her abundant mineralresources that Thailand does not have. On the other hand, politicaland military cooperation between Thailand will increase trade betweenthe two countries further. Nonetheless, given the uniqueness of theserelationships, the growing Sino-Thai relations do not pose a directthreat to Sino-Australia relations for the time being.
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4 DFAT. http://dfat.gov.au/about-us/publications/trade-investment/australias-trade-in-goods-and-services/Pages/australias-trade-in-goods-and-services-2013-14.aspx
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14 VW Staff (2015). What Do Growing Thai-China Relations Mean For The U.S.?