Thailand’s junta has announced this month its intention to invoke Article 44, a security order that allows Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to push through policy unilaterally, in order to kick-start construction on a joint $5.5 billion railway project with China. The move symbolizes the tightening links between the latest ruling junta of a country that was once regarded as a strong US ally, and the communist regime in Beijing. Since General Prayuth Chan-ocha — a former head of the Thai army — led the latest coup in May 2014 to topple a civilian government, several Western countries have downgraded their ties with Bangkok. Prayuth was named as Thailand’s new Prime Minister in August 2014, and since then, his nascent regime has been establishing warm ties with Beijing.
Article 44 has been criticised by human rights groups as a “dictators’ law” but the junta insists that it is necessary to use the power that it grants to overcome legal obstacles — like building on protected land. The high-speed link between Bangkok and the northeastern Thai province of Nakorn Ratchasima is the first phase of a joint Chinese-Thai effort which forms part of Beijing’s vast infrastructure drive, commonly known as “One Belt, One Road.” But while Thailand badly needs to update and develop its aging railway infrastructure and Beijing is looking to connect its cities to trade hubs in South-East Asia, the project has been it by years of delays over its costs, loan terms and even land development rights.
YetThailand has agreed to largely fund the project on the condition that it receives technical assistance from China, and the junta, keen to improve trade to boost its standing, has said construction will begin in August or September. The announcement concerning Article 44 suggests that Prayuth Chan-ocha and his ministers have lost patience with objections to their pet project and intend to ram it through regardless, in part to keep Beijing happy and in part to legitimize their own rule. The present regime justified its seizure of power three years ago because of the chaotic power struggle between pro- and anti-Shinawatra factions in Thailand had resulted in years of paralysis and chaos on the streets of Bangkok. But the Shinawatra family, a shady oligarchic clan with a power-base in Thailand’s north and northeast, had positioned themselves as a populist alternative to Thailand’s elite, Bangkok-centric establishment. Thailand’s new regime therefore found itself having to offer something to replace the populist programs of the two Shinawatra-dominated governments between 2001 and 2006, and from 2011 to 2014).
The junta’s solution has been to try and ride China’s coattails as Beijing throws itself into the role of the world’s newest superpower, looking to use its financial muscle as a form soft power in regions like South-East Asia, where it has many strategic interests. Beijing does not criticize the Thai government for its human rights abuses or question the economic priorities of the traditional elite who splurge disproportionately on Bangkok while leaving Thailand’s provinces impoverished. Thailand was once of the fastest growing countries in South-East Asia; but following years of social chaos as the capitol’s network monarchy has fought a battle to preserve its Panem-style economic arrangements with Thailand’s neglected provinces, the country has fallen behind neighbours like Cambodia, Malaysia and Vietnam in competitiveness.
Now the junta hopes that injections of Chinese cash will reverse Thailand’s economic stagnation without the need for painful reforms that would antagonize its core supporters’ constituencies. Under the “One Belt, One Road” scheme, the long-term plan is for the two partners to build a 873-km rail line linking Thailand’s border with Laos to eastern ports and planned new industrial zones. All this will boost trade with the outside world and bring much needed infrastructure to Thailand’s outlying regions, assuming it ever gets off the drawing board. China has mounting economic problems of its own and has also prioritized getting its own way in the South China Sea dispute to an extent that has cost it a sizable amount of good will among Thailand’s fellow Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries. This suggests that the gains the junta are hoping for will either not materialize or will come with hidden costs if they do so.
There are some signs that Bangkok is aware of the risks of over-relying on Beijing in its foreign policy; it has continued to work in some areas with traditional Western allies. For example, the US and the junta have worked together to improve Thailand’s image on human rights abuses — such as the people trafficking which pervades Thai industries from the sex trade to the fishing industry. But it still plans to double its trade with China from the present $60 billion to $120 billion by 2020. The junta is also deepening military links with Beijing, buying Chinese tanks and submarines, setting up a maintenance and production center for Chinese weapons in Thailand, and conducting joint military exercises with Chinese forces. For the foreseeable future, the smart money remains on Thailand steering a softly pro-China course while Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha remains in charge.