Cappuccino, Covid, and Cold War: Chiang Mai has an important role to play in Thailand’s relationship with China

Mark his words…Edward Kitlertsirivatana warns Chiang Mai to be wary of overreliance on Chinese money. We need to be smart, not greedy.

By | Mon 12 Jul 2021

I enjoy a cup of cappuccino once a day in the morning to fuel me up. First off you pour the espresso into the cup (about 1/3), then add steamed milk, and top it with frothy milk foam. Depending on the barista’s skill, he/she can shape the foam into various shapes, with the heart being the most common. But don’t let the frothy foam sidetrack you. The espresso is what makes it coffee. The caffeinated buzz you get comes from the coffee.

Metaphorically speaking, Covid-19 is the milk froth; the espresso is the new Cold War between the US and China simmering below the surface.

July 1st 2021 marked the 100th anniversary of China’s Communist Party (CCP). Xi Jin Ping outspokenly said, “We will never allow anyone to bully, oppress, or subjugate China…Anyone who dares try to do that will have their heads bashed bloody against the Great Wall of Steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.” That should have been a wake-up call for geopolitical analysts, diplomats, business and world leaders. It certainly woke me up, besides my usual morning cappuccino.

I have written about Thailand’s potential to become a tourism superpower, thanks to its culture, food, natural beauty and low cost. But that doesn’t mean we should rely on it exclusively to the neglect of other sectors. A complete reliance on tourism means in times like the covid-19 – a black swan event – it will completely destroy the sector, leaving us with no other sources of income, much like other petrostates that suffer against the fall of the world’s oil price, causing political instability.

With the rise of Chinese middle-class, which enabled them to travel abroad, they have been the biggest tourism nationality in Thailand within the last 10 -15 years, surpassing all other nationalities. Also worth mentioning is the huge impact Lost in Thailand – a Chinese film set in Chiang Mai – had, drawing droves of Chinese visitors to this city. Soon enough, I saw Chinese-neon signs on many city storefronts. Menus and brochures suddenly offered Chinese mandarin and there were a noticeable increase of Chinese expats. While it boded well for (some) tour- and hospitality-related businesses, we needed to approach it with a degree of caution.

For, if one day our politicians say the wrong thing to China, the CCP could readily tell their citizens, fueled by hyper-nationalism, to boycott Thailand tourism with a single stroke of a pen. And this won’t be a black swan event, because it is predictable, foreseeable, and with an anticipated massive impact, especially when Thailand tourism accounts for about 15 -18% of its GDP.

In China, the private sector is subservient to the CCP, as clearly evidenced when Jack Ma was “put in his place” prior to his ANT group IPO last year. This means economic activities are regulated, supervised, and controlled by the state. And Chinese overseas investments could and would indeed be a leverage for the CCP to call on for political purposes.

As a Thai man, who has run for local office, I am concerned that a government that welcomed Chinese investments with open arms, without proper scrutiny, rolling out the red carpet, will risk locking itself to Chinese mega projects for decades to come, thereby denying itself the diplomatic and economic flexibility required in these uncertain times. To be fair, Thai leaders must also approach the Western-led Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Transpacific Partnership (CPTPP) with wisdom, foresight, and intelligence – not greed and short-term gain on par with Chinese megaprojects.

That said, I applaud China in lifting at least 200 million Chinese out of poverty, enabling them to enjoy a middle-class lifestyle. It is because of China – the world’s factory and savers, that the west has enjoyed inexpensive goods for the last 30 years – from toys to t-shirts, glasses to tennis racquets, furniture to watches. Any goods you can think of. But Thailand must be prudent in its overreliance on just China for tourism and local investments. New Zealand, Australia, the UK, Germany, and the US are increasingly scrutinising Chinese investments in their respective countries, for national security reasons.

As a case in point, our current government has chosen China’s Sinovac vaccine. The results? Countries that have been vaccinated two doses of Sinovac have seen the emergence of reinfection, unable to contain new variants. The Sinovac secretive deal in Thailand, I feel, has become too politically embroiled, shackling Thailand away from a rapid recovery, along with the government’s inaptness.

On the vaccine war front, evidence shows that the US’s Pfizer wins against Sinovac, outperforming it across all measures and outcomes. Thailand, indeed, has picked the wrong side, at least on this issue.

Chiang Mai has been and will become even more so a geo-strategic location for China as a major gateway into central Thailand, through to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, reaching Indonesia and the South China Sea. Chiang Mai therefore needs to retain its distinct cultural identity – its competitive advantage – to be enjoyed and appreciated by all nations alike, gradually and sustainably growing other sectors, alongside tourism. The truth is the city cannot afford 50,000 Chinese moving here, buying up condos, properties, and local businesses, jacking up real-estate prices. Is the local government addressing this?

Militarily, China is playing the catch-up game to the US. Both China and the US are nuclear armed, with the US having approximately 5,500 nuclear weapons, and China 350. To support its sovereignty and its interest in the South China Sea, China now has two aircraft carriers in service to project its power and are building four more. An aircraft carrier is basically a “floating military base”, equipped with fighter jets, helicopters, soldiers, and if need be nuclear-armed, able to strike afar on land, in water, in the air. It requires billions of dollars of investment, scientific excellence, and hi-level technology, coupled with years of training to form a “carrier battle group” comprising frigates, supply vessels, submarines, destroyers, and battleships, akin to a shield protecting the mothership.

Throughout Thailand’s modern history, it has superbly maneuvered deftly, through diplomacy and ‘soft-power’, navigating itself out of harm against the battle of the superpowers. Will we accomplish that again?

Anyone want another cappuccino?

Edward Kitlertsirivatana
Invited contributor to CityNews