Political will key to keeping Thailand-China railway project on track

By Zhou Fangye Source:Global Times Published: 2017/8/31 19:28:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

According to Thai media reports, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha will sign design and construction contracts for the first phase of the Thailand-China high-speed railway project when he attends the BRICS summit in Xiamen on September 3-5, so that the project will start construction in October. The news has also attracted the attention of the Western media.

Twists and turns have persisted in the five years since the project was first proposed, and at times tangible progress has fallen by the wayside, largely due to a lack of consensus among parties on the Thai side. Thanks to the prerogative that Prayut Chan-o-cha resorted to as head of National Council for Peace and Order stipulated in Article 44 of the Temporary Constitution, the Thailand-China railway project has successfully overcome several procedural and legal barriers since June. Moreover, significant progress in negotiations has been achieved in the 19th and 20th meetings of the Thailand-China Joint Committee on Railway Cooperation.

Naturally enough, many people in Thailand and in the West are not happy about these developments, with many raising doubts and concern. Some Western media have alleged that the "Thai people do not need high-speed railway." There are indeed voices of objection in Thailand. But the opinions of most people are quite rational and the questions they raise worth serious consideration. Issues regarding the project's cost-to-profit ratio, land acquisition and relocation of residents, and the use of foreign labor are especially practical and relevant.

Some dissenting opinions focus merely on problems regarding the project, rather than on the medium- and long-term developmental needs of the country. Many opponents of the project turn a blind eye to the structural bottlenecks that need urgent attention while holding onto the vain hope their problems will disappear if the project is for some reason shelved.

For some time, the Thai society and economy have been suffering from a polarization between rich and poor, urban and rural areas, and between different regions. The northern and northeastern parts of Thailand have not shared in the fruits of development enjoyed in Thailand's central region surrounding Bangkok due to poor transportation infrastructure, leaving them lag far behind the national average for development. This is also to a large extent the reason for the serious antagonism between the Red Shirt and Yellow Shirt political movements.

In fact, Thai elites do not lack medium- and long-term development vision. During the phase of fast-paced development in the late 20th century, Thailand valued drafting and implementing mid- and long-term plans. The National Economic and Social Development Board in charge of drafting Thailand's "Five Year Plan" was once the most authoritative government organ, and a crucial player in leading Thailand's development as an "Asian Tiger."

Democratization since the 1990s, however, has replaced the national interest with the interests of political parties and politician groups as the priority. A power struggle between political parties and frequent changes of government have reduced medium- and long-term national development planning to a purely nominal level.

After Prayut Chan-o-cha took office, strategic planning was back on the government agenda again. A 20-year national strategic plan was formulated based on King Bhumibol Adulyadej's philosophy of a "sufficiency economy." The Industry 4.0 Strategy and the Eastern Economic Corridor were also put forward to define state strategies and policy orientation for the next five-20 years. To the current Thai administration, the Thailand-China railway project is a painful choice to make in the short term. Those with a vested interest and previously benefitted from road and rail transport infrastructure projects will no longer be able to skim profits from the top under the new project.

In the medium to long term, the Thailand-China rail project will fundamentally improve the transport infrastructure and enhance people's livelihoods in the north and northeast of the country. More importantly, it will also promote the China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor through which businesses in underdeveloped areas can take a ride on the Belt and Road initiative. In this way, peripheral districts of Thailand will turn into pivotal regions on the peninsula.

Now at a critical juncture, the Thailand-China railway project is a touchstone for the vision and responsibility of Prayut Chan-o-cha's administration. It will require Thailand to show the political will to push forward reforms and face up to those with "vested interests," and state leaders on both sides to demonstrate their political wisdom and a willingness to cooperate if they are to take mutually beneficial decisions to properly solve their problems.

The author is an associate research fellow at the National Institute of International Strategy, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn


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