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Thailand bets on China-led AIIB to finance massive infrastructure needs

Will China's AIIB-backed 'railway diplomacy' be enough to jumpstart Thailand's lagging economy?

Will China’s AIIB-backed ‘railway diplomacy’ be enough to jumpstart Thailand’s lagging economy?

On January 26, Thailand’s cabinet approved a budget of 52.82 billion baht (US$1.47 billion) to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

Thailand will hold around a 1.43 percent share of the bank with payments beginning in five installments of 2.112 billion baht (US$58.90 million) due by the end of 2019.

“As the country [has] aggressive plans to improve its much needed infrastructures, the AIIB would offer great opportunities in terms of more loan availability” explains Nithi Kaveevivitchai, a research economist at the Bank of Ayudhya.

Thailand’s junta is attempting to revive the country’s flailing economy with an ambitious spending program of over US$100 billion that would include large-scale infrastructure upgrades for the country’s railways and roads, as well as air and seaports. Being one of the fifty-seven founding members of the AIIB, Thailand could potentially receive cheaper loan rates and more flexible lending conditions from the Beijing-based bank, compared against the US-led World Bank or the Japan-led Asian Development Bank.

The Thai government foresees it will benefit from intensified diplomatic rivalries between China and Japan. During a speech in April 2015, Thailand’s energy minister Narongchai Akrasanee, cannily asserted that “one thing we have learned is that if we welcome the Chinese, the Japanese will come running.”

Support for the AIIB in Thailand has not been unanimous, however. Kasit Piromya, a former foreign minister and current advisor to the Democratic Party of Thailand, criticized the creation of the AIIB as “part of China’s global strategy to dominate” and argued at the Asian Financial Forum that “China will be dictating terms and that will further weaken the Asean community.”

Since seizing power, Thailand’s military generals have instead sought to deepen political and economic ties to China, which is now the country’s largest trading partner. “It has been analyzed that any related projects that could benefit the supply chain network and trading routes between the ASEAN region and China would receive great attention from the AIIB,” assesses Nithi Kaveevivitchai.

The Sino-Thai railway link, which aims to transform Bangkok into the hub of China’s ambitious Pan-Asia Railway Network, appears to be a particularly likely candidate for an AIIB infrastructure loan. After months of bumpy negotiations – during which Beijing insisted on downgrading the railway from high-speed to medium-speed – the project saw a breakthrough in January 2016 when China agreed to Thailand’s demand that it slash its interest rate from 2.5% to 2%.

The Chinese government had long insisted on a 2.5% rate, arguing that Thailand was now an upper-middle income country, notes Mr. Nithi.

“Whether [the] AIIB will be used to fund this project is still too early to say… it could be seen as a good alternative for funding, especially if the development bank can offer a more competitive lending rate,” he adds.

The railway is currently facing further uncertainties due to its estimated budget of 500 billion baht (US$13.08 billion) and the Thai government is asking China to take more financial responsibility for the project.

Thai Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak told the Nation (Thailand) on February 5 that “Thailand was requesting that China be responsible for civil construction and related work for the 800km-plus railway track instead of just providing trains, rolling stock and related equipment, as the scheme is mutually beneficial so profits should not be the only factor for consideration.

In addition to issues of cost, critics in Thailand have asked whether the project is actually beneficial to the country, which has no mass goods in need of rail transit.

In parallel to the Sino-Thai railway link, Thai and Japanese authorities recently announced they have launched on a trial basis a train-delivery service using 12-foot long containers at Nong Pla Duk Junction in Ratchaburi province.The aim would be to eventually connect the junction to the Dawei deep-sea port in Myanmar, where Thailand has been developing a special economic zone (SEZ) with Naypyidaw since 2012. The long-delayed project was recently joined by Japan in 2015 and has the ambitious aim to become the gateway for the Mekong region to the Indian Ocean. China, however, has also expressed interest in creating a Dawei rail link, intimating a likely point of competition in the future. 

While it remains too early to be seen whether Minister Narongchai will be proven right, using the AIIB to expedite rail infrastructure loans could significantly help China  secure its fragile ascendancy over Japan in terms of ‘railway diplomacy’, as the two countries continue to compete for contracts across Southeast Asia.

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