from Asia Unbound

Of Questionable Connectivity: China’s BRI and Thai Civil Society

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha (C) and Wang Xiaotao (C-L) take part during the groundbreaking ceremony on the Bangkok-Nong Khai high speed rail development in Nakhon Ratchasima Province, Thailand, on December 21, 2017.
Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha (C) and Wang Xiaotao (C-L) take part during the groundbreaking ceremony on the Bangkok-Nong Khai high speed rail development in Nakhon Ratchasima Province, Thailand, on December 21, 2017. Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

Benjamin Zawacki is a senior program specialist with the Asia Foundation’s office in Thailand, focused on regional security and cooperation, and the author of Thailand: Shifting Ground between the US and a Rising China. The Council on Foreign Relations acknowledges the Ford Foundation for its generous support of this project.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) means many things to many people—including to the Chinese. Introduced by President Xi Jinping in 2013, just a year into his term, it was most precisely translated into English as “One Belt, One Road.” With the intended meaning lost in translation, however, it was reprised as the BRI and explained as an overland “belt” and a maritime “road.” Both would run from eastern China and converge, eventually and circuitously, in Venice, Italy. While the belt generally runs west by northwest, with its route on a map appearing as a long lower-case “z,” the maritime road is literally all over that map: It runs southwest down China’s coast and through the South China Sea, west by series of zigs and zags across the Indian Ocean, then north by northwest via the Red and Mediterranean Seas.

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And those are just the main streams of the project; the tributaries spread out, double back, and link up like circuitry. At any given time, the number of countries said to be participating in the BRI varies—but almost always grows—and with them does the number of projects that constitute, connect, and expand the initiative. The breadth of BRI is further complicated by Beijing’s having empowered Chinese provinces (such as southern Guangxi and Yunnan provinces bordering Vietnam, Laos, and/or Myanmar), as well as state-owned enterprises, to negotiate and designate BRI projects with other countries on their own. In rare cases, such as in Australia’s Victoria province, this empowerment is reciprocal.

Yet, what constitutes the projects themselves has also been an ever-evolving matter, and with it—crucially—the very nature and purpose of the BRI. In other words, what is it?

By most accounts, the Belt and Road Initiative was introduced to advance “connectivity” between China and its neighbors, and via its neighbors with places further afield, primarily through traditional infrastructure like roads and railways, seaports and airports, bridges and tunnels, and pipelines and canals. Underlying the concept was the promotion of economic growth, whereby investment in transportation would lead to increases in trade, tourism, and other income-generating activity for all involved. China’s own meteoric economic growth over previous decades, partly the result of having done domestically what it aimed to do abroad, added credibility to its idea that BRI would spark growth in other countries.

Analysts were quick to point out, however, that a lot of infrastructure is “dual use;” that it might have military as well as commercial uses. China’s denial of such intentions, particularly vis-à-vis Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port and more recently Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, have not quieted foreign states’ concerns about the potential dual use of BRI projects. To the contrary, they have led to increased challenges on geopolitical grounds, whereby China is seen as extending not only its patronage abroad but its presence in strategically sensitive areas as well. The case of Hambantota, of which China took possession in 2017 after Sri Lanka failed in its loan obligations, gave rise to accusations of the BRI’s “debt trap diplomacy.” While this idea that China’s BRI projects trap recipient countries in debt has been challenged by researchers at a wide range of institutions, it is still a dominant narrative in Washington and elsewhere.

Moreover, at least as early as 2015, when it established the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) forum, China has broadened BRI projects beyond physical infrastructure. The LMC’s earliest public statements expressly placed its very founding, meetings, agreements, and initiatives under the rubric of the BRI. This in turn has brought to the fore questions concerning Chinese influence, in addition to its more concrete economic, security, or geopolitical interests.

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Beijing doubled down on broadening BRI beyond physical infrastructure, introducing in 2016 a “Digital Silk Road” (DSR) in addition to the original BRI. This Digital Silk Road would promote fifth generation (5G) mobile internet capacity, particularly in countries behind or lacking in such critical twenty-first century technology, as well as other new technologies including smart cities, fintech systems, and others. At the same time, the inception of the DSR raised fears that it could enable the mining and utilization of data belonging or relating to foreign citizens, and that China would export its cybersecurity laws and other internet controls to foreign countries.

Influence of perhaps a more welcome nature appeared in 2019, when in response to foreign criticism regarding environmental impacts, President Xi introduced the “Green BRI.” According to Beijing, BRI projects would henceforth account for environmental and ecological concerns, and in some cases be expressly designed to respond to them. Optimists welcomed this as imperative amidst growing alarm at climate change; pessimists judged it a rhetorical device that would not be followed by action.

This past year, in the midst of a pandemic that originated in China, Beijing’s leadership further began promoting a new “Health Silk Road” to promote its “mask diplomacy” and make available its COVID-19 vaccine beyond its borders.

The BRI in Thailand

The BRI’s evolution, and the ambiguity of the overall project, are critical to understanding how BRI operates in Thailand. To a greater degree than in most other Southeast Asian countries, the BRI’s evolution and ambiguity are reflective of the project’s relationship with Thailand and with Thai civil society. This paper presents five main points concerning the ways in which Thai civil society has both challenged and been challenged by the BRI, resulting in a kind of split verdict as to the initiative’s present and future standing in the kingdom.

First is that civil society in Thailand cannot interact with what it cannot identify. There is no single understanding of the BRI in Thailand and certainly no prevailing narrative concerning the BRI’s nature, purpose, and effects. This is symbolized by confusion as to when Thailand officially became a participating country and as to which projects count as part of BRI.

Thais agree that the high-speed rail project, running from the Thai-Lao border to Bangkok and continuing south to its border with Malaysia, is a BRI project—in no small part because the rail actually starts in China and ends in Singapore. Yet on the one hand, the Thai section was agreed in concept and principle as far back as 2010, three years before the BRI was announced; on the other hand, Thailand did not appear on most BRI maps for several years after that 2013 announcement. And for a brief temporary period in 2016, Thai Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha actually canceled the project.

Furthermore, the rail line is one of the few projects in the kingdom that Beijing and Bangkok agree is actually part of the BRI. A list from inside China in early 2019 contained seven BRI projects in Thailand, although most had not been notably publicized as part of the initiative, and several hardly publicized at all. Conversely, the high-profile Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) and the rail network linking Bangkok’s two airports with U-Tapao Airport, were not listed. Nor was a potential canal across Thailand’s southern isthmus, despite press reports in Thailand going back to 2017 that it was being discussed as a possible BRI project.

Of course, a project need not be considered part of the BRI for Thai civil society to promote or oppose it, or to seek more information or provide its points of view. But given the various conceptions of the BRI discussed above, as well as its close association with a larger but equally complex and contested “Brand China,” it stands to reason that the BRI label makes a difference in how Thai civil society views a project.

Whether this ambiguity concerning projects’ BRI status is intentional or incidental is related to a second main point: Thai policymakers and business partners cannot help but be influenced by the approach of their Chinese counterparts, and China’s approach simply does not include an express role for civil society. While protests and petitions in China concerning infrastructure projects, particularly at a local level, are far more numerous than is generally reported, neither China’s various levels of government nor its state-backed banks and business are encouraged—much less required—to consult or consider views on the ground.[1]

This is not to suggest that, while U.S. companies might expressly condition certain projects on social, human rights, or environmental impact assessments, Chinese liaisons would expressly prohibit them. Rather, the fact that China’s civil society does not generally see itself as a monitor or watchdog of the government, means that it is simply not factored into the equation on the Chinese side of the table. Civil society participation would need to be proactively introduced by the Thai side on any BRI project. This would invariably infuse the prospect of delays into a project’s timing and even doubts as to its viability, which generally disadvantages a negotiation.

Add to this that Thailand has had either a military or military-backed government since 2014, just a year after the BRI’s introduction. The Thai governments’ own efforts to silence critical voices, centralize policy and power, and privilege big businesses and mega-projects in growing Thailand’s economy, have only signaled a stronger receptiveness to China’s state-driven approach. Indeed, in a recent book, Rivers of Iron: Railroads and Chinese Power in Southeast Asia, the authors note that the Thai government’s prioritization of the Eastern Economic Corridor over the high-speed rail, may be partly on account of the rail’s location in the stronghold of the military’s electoral, civil society, and grassroots opponents.[2]

China’s high growth rates at home also are attractive to Thailand. After long periods of high growth in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, Thailand’s own yearly growth has ranged from just 1 percent to 4.2 percent since 2014.[3]

Yet at times Thai policymakers, even under military governments, have pushed back against aspects of BRI projects. Regarding the high-speed rail at least, the Thai government has arguably achieved much of what might otherwise be expected of civil society. The State Railway of Thailand took the lead in summarily denying China’s request for development rights along the rail’s right-of-way and on the land on either side of its route. Controversy over whether Chinese engineers would be permitted to work in Thailand was also largely driven by officialdom, seriously delaying progress on the rail and resulting in Prime Minister Prayuth being excluded from China’s first Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in 2017. While a compromise on the engineers was reached, Thailand managed to secure considerable technology transfer from Beijing in the process.

In January 2021, only the third of fourteen contracts concerning the rail’s initial section was signed, the result of extended and intensive negotiation by Thailand. Critically, the Thais have also assumed the lion’s share of financing for the project; in effect refusing to engage in “debt trap diplomacy” in favor of a more empowered—if initially expensive—approach.

A third main point is similar: Alongside the influence of China’s negotiators vis-à-vis Thai officials, a more constant and persistent presence of other Chinese actors in Thailand has undeniably influenced Thai civil society.

Spread throughout the kingdom, Thailand hosts the most Confucius Institutes of any country in Asia and more than in the rest of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) combined. They are designed to promote official versions of Chinese history, society, and politics. In 2019 in Bangkok’s prestigious Thammasat University, a new Pridi Phanamyong Learning Centre was opened, devoted exclusively to China and featuring an initial collection of over two thousand books. Alongside the thousands of Thais who study in these institutions were, in 2018, some 8,400 students from China—double the number from the previous year. Enabling the Chinese’ studies has been an explosion in recent years of Mandarin language courses throughout Thailand at all levels, as well as a rise in non-language courses taught in Mandarin itself.

The rising number of Chinese students and classes in Thailand has been further enabled by three additional factors: For one, significantly more Thais have studied in Chinese universities than nationals from any other ASEAN country.[4] Two, a long and deep relationship exists between China’s leadership and Thailand’s popular Princess Sirindhorn, who studied in China, speaks and writes Mandarin fluently, and in 2019 was awarded China’s Friendship Medal, the highest honor given to foreigners. And three, there has been a proliferation of Chinese-language newspapers and media outlets across Thailand; previously such news outlets were limited primarily to Bangkok’s Chinatown.

In addition, China’s state media outlets are producing copy in Thai for the kingdom’s audience. At least twelve of Thailand’s most popular news outlets are provided free articles from China’s Xinhua News, translated into Thai, while the Thai-language “China Xinhua News” Facebook page has millions of followers.[5] Chinese state media also provide the English-language China Daily to many sites in Thailand. Last year at a bookshop in Bangkok known as a gathering spot for civil society, a young, genial Chinese man introduced himself and kindly asked whether he might send something to this author’s address. The next day a copy of the China Daily arrived, whose stories and ads on the BRI absolutely dominated coverage. When this author politely asked for a reprieve several months later, he was assured that dozens of other coffee shops, college cafes, and NGO co-working spaces were receiving daily copies free of charge.

Religion is another area of Chinese influence in the kingdom concerning the BRI. In late 2020, the Australian scholar Gregory Raymond published “Religion as a Tool of Influence: Buddhism and China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Mainland Southeast Asia.” In Raymond’s words, “It presents early evidence that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is evolving to incorporate people-to-people links as one of its five official goals.”[6]

Indeed, in 2015, the visiting Communist Party secretary of Hainan province told Thailand’s foreign and cultural ministers that his province had just established a college to promote “Buddhist cooperation between China and Southeast Asia consistent with the framework of the One Belt One Road initiative.” Thailand’s Sangha Supreme Council sent a delegation to the opening two years later. Since then, Buddhist abbots and associations in Yunnan, Guangdong, and Hainan provinces have both sent and received delegations of their counterparts and fellow believers in Thailand, explicitly to discuss the BRI. Thailand’s Mahachula Buddhist University also sent monks to participate in a 2017 conference in Hong Kong, focused on “Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism along the ‘One Belt, One Road’.”

Again, however, the extent and effects of this Chinese influence on Thai civil society are debatable. In late December 2020, the Bangkok Post reported that the State Railway of Thailand and a provincial governor had just presided over a public hearing on the rail’s second phase, to “provide information to the local community so they could comment and help the developers improve the project.” The story made reference to past and future hearings as well, concluding that “[s]ome 800 million baht (roughly $25 million) will be spent on a study and environmental impact assessment.”[7] Whether these consultations have preempted or addressed any local concerns is not clear. But aside from the role played by the State Railway Workers Union in the government’s rejection of China’s land-use requests, neither this author’s observations nor queries to Thai civil society contacts has revealed strong negative views on the high-speed rail.

At the same time, Thai civil society has clearly resisted any implicit or explicit attempts at influence with respect to another project placed under the BRI umbrella: the blasting of a final inlet of rapids on the Mekong River to allow for larger vessels traveling to and from southern China. Already linking southern China to the “Maritime Silk Road” via its delta on the Gulf of Thailand, the Mekong River is also being connected to the Andaman Sea via an east-west railway across Thailand’s narrow peninsula. All of this “connectivity” has been subsumed under China’s 2015 Lancang-Mekong Cooperation forum, which in turn is officially part of the BRI.

Three years after Thailand agreed to China’s 2016 request to blast the final rapids in northern Thailand, it reversed course in 2019 after sustained protest by civil society organizations and local community groups, and as the Mekong itself was experiencing its lowest levels ever recorded. Both Thai and foreign officials informed this author that the main reason for the cancelation concerned the river’s “thalweg,” defined as the middle of the primary navigable channel defining the boundary between two countries—in this case Thailand-Laos. The blasting, in other words, could cause Thailand to lose a sliver of territory to Laos. That said, publicly both the Thai and Chinese governments cited civil society’s concerns—the environment, ecology, culture, livelihoods, food security—as the main reason for the cancellation.

Whatever the case, and public relations and face-saving concerns aside, Thai civil society clearly identified the blasting project as being driven by China; and activity, openly, and successfully opposed it.

A fourth point is related to the involvement of Thais at the local level. Besides the ambiguities of the BRI itself, how we define and conceive of civil society in Thailand also affects our assessment of its impact on the BRI in the kingdom.

Consider a potential canal across Thailand’s Isthmus of Kra, which has often—but not always—been discussed under the BRI since 2017, including by China’s ambassador to Thailand. The idea of a canal across the narrow isthmus has been raised and tested intermittently for literally three and a half centuries. A modern canal’s main proponent has been one Thai Canal Association, whose name has all the trappings of a civil society organization and whose membership overlaps considerably with the Thai-Chinese Economic and Cultural Association. At the same time, the Thai Canal Association’s chair is a former army chief and the secretary-general of a foundation named after a late prime minister and chair of the Thai king’s Privy Council, his group of close advisors. Other retired senior military and political figures, including another former prime minister, are also members. Their advocacy for a canal is focused on projections of economic growth and claims that it will bolster national security. Further muddying the waters, the association claims to have several hundred thousand signatures in support of a canal, from villagers and other Thais living in the relevant peninsular provinces but not formally organized as a civil society organization.[8]

Or consider as civil society businesses, which are sometimes but not always thought of as civil society. Thai businesses range from small- and medium-sized enterprises to multinationals and are organized in an array of associations. Thailand’s Charoen Pokphand (CP) Group was founded by a Chinese immigrant to the kingdom in 1921, and eventually became the first foreign investor in Communist China. Today CP is a rich and powerful conglomerate present in every Chinese province. It is a giant in Thailand as well, employing several hundred thousand Thais, and is a key domestic player in the BRI’s Eastern Economic Corridor. In 2019, a CP-led consortium was awarded the concession to build a railway linking three Thai airports, another BRI project. CP had never ventured into transportation before, but a revolving door between the company and Thailand’s Foreign and Commerce ministries has existed for decades.

In Thailand and elsewhere, civil society is commonly thought of as the domain of a younger demographic with progressive agendas; and frankly not of people with powerful alternative sources of leverage and legitimacy. Yet this denies civil society membership to older generations based simply on age or agenda, and denies people their right to trade one community for another (or to be part of multiple communities simultaneously). It also speaks to the fact that in Thailand, many of the new, vibrant, and progressive civil society organizations formed during the 1990s, were coopted, marginalized, and/or discredited by Thailand’s color-coded and reactionary interest groups during the 2000s.

Finally, it is important to ask whether the distinction between civil society and civil society organizations, or CSOs, is a meaningful one. For instance, must southern Thai villagers even confer with one another on an issue, much less organize themselves around it, to count as Thai civil society?

Indeed, the Kra canal may seem like only a sub-issue of the BRI in Thailand, but it exposes a much larger challenge confronting the country and its citizens.

A fifth and final point is that, regarding the BRI’s programs beyond physical infrastructure, Thai civil society is plainly conflicted.

China’s Digital Silk Road, according to CFR’s Joshua Kurlantzick, “goes toward improving recipients’ telecommunications networks, artificial intelligence capabilities, cloud computing, e-commerce and mobile payment systems, surveillance technology, smart cities, and other high-tech areas.”[9] Fifth generation (5G) mobile internet technology, able to carry enormous caches of data at almost instant speed, is a major aspect of the DSR. Not only is China’s Huawei Technologies already a global leader in 5G’s development and application, but in 2019 Thailand indicated that Huawei was leading the race for building out 5G across the kingdom. Some of Huawei’s investment runs through CP, which operates the leading telecommunications firm in Thailand and which was invited to participate in Huawei’s 5G test networks in the Eastern Economic Corridor.

Thai civil society has not notably opposed the government’s favorable view of Huawei—and it is not difficult to see why. In 2018, 74 percent of Thai citizens had regular access to the internet, and Thailand led the world in time spent online each day with a jaw-dropping 9.4 hours. Nearly half of that time—4.6 hours daily—was spent on mobile internet, also a world-leading figure. Bangkok had (and likely still has) the largest number of active Facebook accounts among cities globally, and Instagram was not far behind.[10] Thailand also ranked number one in the world in 2019 in mobile banking penetration.[11] As for mobile devices, sales of Huawei brand phones have taken off in recent years, cutting into the traditionally popular iPhone and Samsung markets.

Yet in mid-2020, as Beijing threatened the use of force against Taiwan and substantially tightened control over Hong Kong, a collection of Thai netizens criticized China’s moves on social media. This sparked a backlash from Chinese social media users, which in turn led to netizens in Taiwan and Hong Kong reciprocating their support from Thailand and the formation of a so-called “Milk Tea Alliance,” after the trendy drink popular in all three locations. Illustrated by a new #MilkTeaAlliance hashtag, this social media activity created a kind of de facto online community. Moreover, when Chinese users pointed out free speech violations in Thailand itself, Thais undermined the critics by readily agreeing with them about the suppression of speech in the kingdom.

Indeed, Thai civil society has long opposed Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act, which the government has used to censor or chill free speech. While the law predates the DSR by nearly a decade, its 2017 amendments were passed less than a year after the DSR’s announcement. Thai civil society has accused these amendments of having been inspired and informed—if not enabled—by China’s “Great Firewall” and other domestic digital policies and practices. They allow Thai authorities nearly unfettered authority to censor speech, engage in surveillance, conduct warrantless searches of personal data, and curtail the utilization of encryption and anonymity online.

Analogous to this dynamic has been the mixed reaction in Thailand to China’s new Health Silk Road: like all Thais, leaders of Thai civil society want access to a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible, and China’s Sinopharm and Sinovac have impressed with the speed at which they have produced one. Yet as early as April 2020, Sophie Boisseau de Rocher of the French Institute of International Relations noted “angry voices emanating from civil society” toward a Thai government that “failed to take strong action to fight the virus (in a bid not to offend China),” while Thai netizens were questioning the efficacy of China’s vaccine even before recent tests have cast further doubt.[12]

In conclusion, just as China’s Belt and Road Initiative is many things to many countries, and to the many and diverse people within those countries; so is its relationship with Thai civil society a varied, nuanced, and evolving picture. As Thailand itself presents a unique situation to the BRI as a U.S. treaty ally, the world’s twenty-second largest economy (2019), an authoritarian democracy, and a superlative social media consumer; its civil society alternately ignores, accepts, welcomes, and opposes its numerous elements. This has been the case in Thailand for the past eight years, and can be expected to hold for the foreseeable future.