China-Thai relations have been good for decades, but our giant neighbour is growing fast; maintaining the special ties will require extra effort.
Today, Thailand and China commemorate the 35th anniversary of their diplomatic ties, following decades of adversarial relations during the Cold War. The reopening of diplomatic relations was a historic decision under the government of then Thai prime minister Kukrit Pramoj, who decided to go along with the inevitable global trend at the time.
Officials from both nations can now praise the excellent state of relations, with frequent reciprocal visits by senior officials of both countries. At the height of the relationship, especially when Thailand was not facing severe political uncertainty, more than 1,000 delegates regularly travelled back and forth between the two capitals. Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn has visited China more than three dozen times since the normalisation of diplomatic relations, cementing the Sino-Thai friendship as never before. In March, she was chosen by the Chinese people (in an online poll) as one of the top ten best friends of China.
China's trade and investment in Thailand has increased over the past few years despite the political crisis here. But numbers and statistics mean less than the sentiment of relations between the two countries. That sentiment has been evident for a long time. When Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia on Christmas Day, 1978 to oust the genocidal Khmer Rouge, and supposedly threaten the security of Southeast Asia to boot-China was on our side. Thailand, fearful of the perceived communist threat from Vietnam, received support from China and Asean for the next 23 years, until the Paris Peace Agreement of 1991 ended the misery of Cambodia. China's support for Thailand was unwavering during that period.
Thailand, in turn, has acted as a conduit in China's effort to increase its diplomatic role in Southeast Asia and the global community. In the early years after the re-establishment of normal diplomatic relations, the Sino-Thai friendship was one of the most important in the overall scheme of things in Southeast Asia. But things have changed in the intervening years. China went on to join the World Trade Organisation, and its economic growth has since been unstoppable. Today, Asia's giant is one of the world's economic superpowers. It is no longer Thailand that China has to cajole. China now has a global agenda, and Beijing does not need Bangkok as it used to.
As such, the time has come for both countries to consider substance more than diplomatic form-which has been the main feature of the relationship for the past 35 years. For the next three decades, if relations are still confined to pleasantries, the partnership could be rendered ineffective. China's ties with all of Thailand's neighbours, especially Cambodia, now have a strategic element. Indeed, Phnom Penh has emerged as one of the most valued friends of China, perhaps the most valued in mainland Southeast Asia.
Thailand now needs to work out frankly with China what kind of relationship we should have in the future. Certainly, it will not be easy, as Thailand's frequent changes of government, and the ongoing political uncertainties, will testify. Long-term commitment and planning are thus more difficult, but that does not mean that commitment from both sides cannot be agreed upon.
Obviously, every country wants to establish special or strategic relations with its neighbours, especially powerful ones, but genuine mutual interests are the real indicator of solid ties. Thai policy-makers need to better understand China's potential and future limits. They cannot take the past for granted. Whilst maintaining the current relationship, they must also be aware that future Thai-Chinese ties will need rejuvenating, especially as China spreads its wings and looks to other regions of the world to secure its interests.