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10BANGKOK269 CHINA’S SUSTAINED, SUCCESSFUL EFFORTS TO COURT SOUTHEAST ASIA AND THAILAND – PERSPECTIVES AND IMPLICATIONS

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“246638″,”2/2/2010 4:24″,”10BANGKOK269″,”Embassy

 

Bangkok”,”CONFIDENTIAL”,”09BANGKOK2851|10BANGKOK186″,”VZCZCXRO3619

 

PP RUEHCHI RUEHCN RUEHDT RUEHHM

 

DE RUEHBK #0269/01 0330424

 

ZNY CCCCC ZZH

 

P 020424Z FEB 10

 

FM AMEMBASSY BANGKOK

 

TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 9783

 

INFO RUEHZS/ASSOCIATION OF SOUTHEAST ASIAN NATIONS PRIORITY

 

RUEHBJ/AMEMBASSY BEIJING PRIORITY 7970

 

RUEHBY/AMEMBASSY CANBERRA PRIORITY 0384

 

RUEHNE/AMEMBASSY NEW DELHI PRIORITY 5922

 

RUEHUL/AMEMBASSY SEOUL PRIORITY 6167

 

RUEHKO/AMEMBASSY TOKYO PRIORITY 2311

 

RUEHWL/AMEMBASSY WELLINGTON PRIORITY 0294

 

RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY

 

RHHMUNA/CDR USPACOM HONOLULU HI PRIORITY

 

RHMFISS/CJCS WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY

 

RUEAIIA/CIA WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY

 

RUEKDIA/DIA WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY

 

RHEHNSC/NSC WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY”,”C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01

 

OF 04 BANGKOK 000269

 

SIPDIS

 

E.O. 12958: DECL: 02/01/2020

 

TAGS: PGOV, PREL, PREF, PHUM, SMIG, TH

 

SUBJECT: CHINA,S SUSTAINED, SUCCESSFUL EFFORTS TO COURT

 

SOUTHEAST ASIA AND THAILAND – PERSPECTIVES AND IMPLICATIONS

 

REF: A. BANGKOK 186

 

B. 09 BANGKOK 2851

 

Classified By: Ambassador Eric G. John, reason 1.4 (b, d)

 

1. (C) Summary: Thai contacts from government to academia see

 

a decade-long Chinese romance of Southeast Asia, both

 

through ASEAN and bilaterally, to have been successful in

 

increasing Chinese influence during a period in which many

 

believe that U.S. influence and prestige in the region has

 

waned. The Chinese effort in Thailand in particular is

 

multifaceted and deeply rooted, from diplomatic to economic,

 

military to cultural. Chinese high-level visits to Thailand

 

and reciprocal Thai visits to China by Prime Ministers,

 

Foreign Ministers, Defense Ministers, and top-ranking

 

military brass continued at a rapid pace in 2009, leading to

 

a slew of new agreements. Thais compliment the Obama

 

administration\’s efforts in 2009 to re-engage diplomatically

 

in Southeast Asia. However, even government officials and

 

academics sympathetic to the U.S. see the dynamic of China

 

rising and the U.S. receding likely to continue, unless the

 

U.S takes more vigorous action to follow-up with sustained

 

efforts to engage on issues that matter to the Thai and the

 

region, not just what is perceived as the U.S.\’ own agenda.

 

This cable is one in a series examining aspects of the

 

China-Thai relationship; septels will examine Thai-Sino

 

economic relations and cultural ties/exchanges.

 

2. (C) Comment: Thailand has never seen international

 

relations as a zero-sum game and has traditionally sought

 

good relations with all sides; the uptick in Chinese

 

influence and activity does not automatically mean a

 

corresponding decline in U.S. influence. The upcoming trip

 

of Thai Army Commander GEN Anupong to the U.S. on a

 

counterpart visit February 7-13 is a good start for the

 

bilateral relationship in 2010. Equally important in

 

building on the promise of 2009 will be inviting PM Abhisit

 

to Washington, putting substance into the promise of the

 

Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), and launching the next session

 

of the Strategic Dialogue as agreed by the Secretary and Thai

 

FM Kasit last April. End Summary and Comment.

 

CHINA RISING, U.S. FADING?

 

————————–

 

3. (C) Indications that the U.S.\’s historically close

 

relationship with Thailand and the region is being challenged

 

by the rise of China have become increasingly evident in

 

recent years in a variety of arenas, not just economically

 

but diplomatically, culturally, politically, and even in some

 

security areas. A U.S.-educated Thai Army Colonel at the

 

National Defense College shocked a group of U.S. one-star

 

officers visiting as part of the CAPSTONE program in the fall

 

of 2008 by stating bluntly: \”The Thai perceive regional power

 

dynamics as follows: China is rising; the U.S. is

 

distracted/declining; and Thailand will adjust its policies

 

accordingly.\” In mid-December 2009, the MFA held an in-house

 

seminar that covered the future of China and the U.S. in Asia

 

and reached similar conclusions, two participants told us

 

later that day. Apart from a general consensus that China

 

was reassuming the more prominent role in Asia it had enjoyed

 

for millennia prior to the 19th century, there was much

 

concern expressed about the future of the U.S. in Southeast

 

Asia.

 

4. (C) Participants in the December MFA seminar cited several

 

factors behind their doubts about the U.S. staying

 

power in the region, according to participating Thai MFA

 

officials. They believed the damage from economic problems

 

in the U.S. over the past few years would severely limit the

 

ability of the U.S. to influence global economic affairs and

 

to dedicate the budget necessary to maintain its military

 

advantage in the region. Other attendees reportedly

 

suggested that a fascination in Washington with Indonesia and

 

Vietnam would likely lead to continued decreased

 

interest/involvement in Thailand bilaterally. Finally,

 

several participants suggested that recent trips by President

 

Obama and Secretary Clinton to China had demonstrated a much

 

more conciliatory U.S. stance towards China; they interpreted

 

BANGKOK 00000269 002 OF 004

 

this development as a sign that the balance of power between

 

the U.S. and China had shifted in favor of China, rather than

 

the possibility that the U.S. stance reflected the

 

Administration\’s more cooperative approach to managing the

 

complex relationship with China.

 

CHINA\’S DIPLOMATIC INROADS TO ASEAN…

 

————————————–

 

5. (SBU) One avenue the PRC has used to court Southeast Asia

 

is through sustained, friendly diplomatic engagement over the

 

past decade. China\’s diplomatic romance of ASEAN started a

 

decade ago, Thammasat International Relations

 

Professor Praphat Thepchatri stated at a January 14 seminar

 

titled \”The Obama Administration\’s Policy Towards Southeast

 

Asia, One Year On.\” (Note: despite not being on the seminar

 

agenda, China\’s role in Southeast Asia was as much under

 

discussion by participants as the U.S. role. End note).

 

Suspending its confrontational focus on South China Sea

 

territorial disputes, Beijing changed its approach and was

 

the first big outside power to sign the Southeast Asia Treaty

 

of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) with ASEAN. It then pursued a

 

clear, patient, well-planned strategy of engagement in the

 

region through repeated reciprocal visits at all levels.

 

6. (SBU) Praphat and fellow seminar speaker Dr. Wiwat, a

 

Cornell and Harvard-educated mainstay of U.S-Thai exchanges

 

for decades, contrasted the Chinese charm offensive to what

 

they termed the \”lost\” years of the Bush administration,

 

during which time they claimed the U.S. had lost significant

 

prestige and moral standing as a world leader in the eyes of

 

ASEAN governments and citizens. Praphat complimented the

 

U.S. diplomatic strategy in 2009, including the US-ASEAN

 

Leaders\’ Meeting in Singapore, the U.S. signing of the TAC,

 

the launch of the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), and the

 

U.S.-announced intention to send an Ambassador to ASEAN in

 

Jakarta.

 

7. (SBU) The Chinese, however, did not stand still in 2009,

 

Praphat noted. During the 12th ASEAN-China Summit in

 

October, China made further inroads by establishing the $10

 

billion China-ASEAN Fund on Investment Cooperation and a

 

$15 billion Commercial Credit to support infrastructure

 

development in ASEAN member states, including the

 

construction of roads and railways, for \”connectivity\”

 

between ASEAN and China. Modest U.S. initiatives lacked such

 

similar signature projects, he said.

 

…AND BILATERALLY

 

——————

 

8. (SBU) The fast pace of high-level Chinese bilateral visits

 

to Thailand continued in 2009. Chinese Premier Wen

 

Jiabao visited Thailand twice, to attend ASEAN 3 meetings in

 

April and October. Defense Minister Liang Guanglie

 

visited in December to enhance Thai-Sino military

 

cooperation, pushing (successfully) for new military

 

exercises. PM Abhisit went to Beijing in June 2009 with the

 

goal of boosting bilateral trade relations and luring Chinese

 

tourists back to Thailand after the 2008 unrest/airport

 

closure. FM Kasit visited China three times in 2009. The

 

Chinese embassy told us recently that there are so many

 

visits to Thailand, involving not only central government

 

officials but provincial trade delegations, that they do not

 

assign control officers for anyone lower than a Vice-Minister.

 

9. (C) During Abhisit\’s June visit, Thailand and China signed

 

eighteen agreements covering Thai exports of rubber, fruit,

 

rice, jewelry, and other goods worth an estimated total value

 

of $1.05 billion – an example of the Chinese paying attention

 

to the Thai top priorities (in this case: exports and trade

 

ties), even as China itself benefits from the China-ASEAN

 

Free Trade Agreement (see septel for more on Sino-Thai

 

economic relations). Abhisit characterized the

 

trip a success that would lead to stronger trade and

 

investment cooperation between the two countries (Note: In

 

contrast, we have not been able to respond positively to

 

Abhisit\’s repeatedly expressed desire, since he took office

 

in December 2008, to visit Washington to promote Thai-U.S.

 

BANGKOK 00000269 003 OF 004

 

relations. End Note).

 

10. (C) We have also noticed an ever increasing quality to

 

the Chinese diplomatic presence in Thailand. Many Chinese

 

diplomats are fully fluent in Thai, led by the Chinese

 

Ambassador, who has spent 17 years of his career posted here

 

and routinely makes local TV appearances. Those that do not

 

have previous Thai experience, like the DCM, are smart,

 

articulate, and increasingly confident in speaking up at

 

English-language international relations seminars once the

 

preserve of \”Western\” diplomats.

 

GREATER CHINESE MILITARY ENGAGEMENT…

 

————————————–

 

11. (C) In recent years the Thai military has increased its

 

engagement with China, in the face of sustained Chinese

 

interest. Thailand and China officially initiated annual

 

defense talks in 2001; they conducted their first joint

 

military exercise in 2005, focusing on humanitarian relief.

 

China has conducted intensive military diplomacy with

 

Thailand via high-level, expenses-paid junkets and

 

educational exchanges for years, currying favor at many

 

levels of the military, starting at the very top. Thai Army

 

Commander General Anupong Paojinda, the most powerful Thai

 

military officer, frequently travels to China. In comments

 

to close aides after one trip in early 2009, Anupong

 

favorably compared the treatment he receives in China to the

 

\”big brother\” approach of his U.S. counterparts, whom he

 

viewed as at times more interested in pursuing potential

 

concerns over human rights and democracy than in building

 

relationships, one of his aides told us later.

 

12. (C) In the wake of the 2006 coup, Beijing pressed its

 

advantage while the U.S. suspended $24 million in various

 

forms of military assistance and restricted high-level

 

engagement. Stating the coup was an internal affair, China

 

quickly provided $49 million in military aid/credits to

 

Thailand, increased the number of exchange students at both

 

countries\’ staff colleges, and successfully pushed Thailand

 

to conduct annual, small-scale Special Forces joint

 

exercises. The two nations signed a Joint Action Plan in May

 

2007 that solidified their cooperation and opened the

 

door for a further increase in joint military activities.

 

13. (C) During a December 2009 visit of the Chinese Minister

 

of Defense, the two countries agreed to expand bilateral

 

exercises starting in 2010 to include an amphibious landing

 

event, a naval search and rescue, and a humanitarian relief

 

exercise. The maritime exercise will be conducted with the

 

Royal Thai Marine Corps (RTMC) at the platoon/company level

 

and take place over the course of one week later in 2010.

 

While still in the planning stage, it is expected to involve

 

approximately 100 marines from each side, one amphibious ship

 

with approximately 5-10 amphibious assault vehicles and/or

 

landing craft.

 

…THOUGH THAI CONCERNS DO EXIST

 

——————————–

 

14. (C) Not all Thai leaders are on board with the expansion

 

of military ties, however. The Royal Thai Marine Corps and

 

the MFA have resisted the rapid expansion of exercises with

 

the Chinese, with the MFA strongly recommending that

 

exercises with China focus on humanitarian or disaster relief

 

to avoid causing alarm with the U.S. That said, Foreign

 

Minister Kasit advised EAP DAS Marciel in early November 2009

 

that Thailand could not continue to say no to China\’s

 

requests for more military engagement, and that the U.S.

 

military needed to re-engage more seriously, and to respond

 

\”at least symbolically\” to Thai requests for Excess Defense

 

Articles (ref B).

 

15. (C) Dr. XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX for

 

International Affairs at XXXXXXXX University and a

 

specialist on both the U.S. and China, told us in December

 

that he doubted that Thailand would adopt Chinese military

 

techniques in the next few years because the Thai military

 

still prefers training and education in the U.S. He also

 

BANGKOK 00000269 004 OF 004

 

noted that the Thai military has been reluctant to make new

 

large-scale weapons purchases from China because of concerns

 

dating back to the 1980s, when much of the military equipment

 

purchased from the Chinese was found to be of poor quality

 

and was ultimately reserved for training or left to rust in

 

warehouses.

 

16. (C) Moreover, China\’s sale of conventional weapons to

 

Thailand\’s neighbors has the potential to create tension in

 

the relationship, MFA XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

OfficerXXXXXXXXXX told us in December.XXXXX said

 

that then MFA XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX had

 

\”sternly\” raised this issue with the Chinese and underscored

 

the security risks that such weapons sales pose for Thailand.

 

(Note: XXXX would not specify the neighboring country, but

 

XXXX had long focused on the Thai-Cambodian border

 

skirmishes. XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX raised concerns

 

about the China-Burma relationship with PM A/S Shapiro in

 

mid-January; RTARF XXXXXXXX told A/S Shapiro that the

 

two regional militaries deemed a residual conventional threat

 

to Thailand by Thai military were Cambodia and Burma. See

 

ref A. End Note).

 

CHINA COURTS THE ROYAL FAMILY

 

—————————–

 

17. (C) As part of the Thai-specific charm offensive, the

 

Chinese have courted members of the Royal Family by

 

supporting lavish VIP trips to China. We have heard that

 

Beijing mounted a serious effort in 2007-8 to get King

 

Bhumibol, who has not traveled abroad since a 1995 trip to

 

Laos, to visit China before the King\’s health took a

 

serious downturn. Princess Sirindhorn, the second most

 

beloved Thai royal, has made a reported twenty-eight trips

 

to China since 1981 – including three in 2009 – in an effort

 

to foster closer social and educational ties between

 

the two nations. A Chinese domestic web-based popularity

 

contest celebrating the 60th anniversary of the PRC in 2009

 

picked Sirindhorn as the second most important of \”China\’s

 

top ten international friends.\”

 

18. (C) The MFA\’s XXXXX stressed that the work Princess

 

Sirindhorn had undertaken to enhance Thai-China bilateral

 

relations is more than symbolic. Princess Sirindhorn worked

 

with the Chinese to establish the Princess Sirindhorn

 

Institute, which focuses on joint research in biotechnology,

 

alternative energy, and alternative Chinese medicine and

 

hosts both Thai and Chinese students. Princess Sirindhorn, a

 

fluent Mandarin speaker, also encourages Thai students to

 

study in China and to learn Chinese. The Chinese have also

 

built a special residential compound outside Beijing for

 

Sirindhorn. Those close to Sirindhorn have suggested to us

 

that she is likely to leave Thailand and take up permanent

 

residence in China after the eventual death of King Bhumibol,

 

so as to leave the Thai stage to her brother Crown Prince

 

Vajiralongkorn.

 

19. (C) Princess Chulabhorn also travels frequently to China,

 

making three trips in 2009 for mostly cultural purposes. FM

 

Kasit\’s third trip to Beijing in 2009 was to attend

 

Chulabhorn\’s December musical performances, in which she

 

played the zither, a Chinese instrument. Much of the

 

attraction to China for the Princesses, as well as many other

 

Thai, is cultural in nature; Chualbhorn and Sirinhorn are

 

also honorary cultural ambassadors to China. (Septel will

 

examine

 

Sino-Thai cultural ties and exchanges in greater detail).

 

JOHN

 

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Written by thaicables

June 28, 2011 at 10:43 am

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