By Huang Rihan The latest flip-flop in a Chinese-Thai rail project has raised new questions about China’s massive investment in Southeast Asia, a crucial link in its whole chain of “Belt and Road” initiative. Halted by the Thai side over disagreement on some details, the landmark project is stuck at the blueprint stage despite joint endorsements by heads of both governments.
Earlier this month, Thai Transport Minister Arkhom Termpittayapaisith, in an interview with The Straits Times, said the rail project is a “friendship project,” and the Chinese should not “make any profits.”
Thailand insists that the interest rate China offers – 2.5 percent – is too high and should be reduced to 2 percent, which is the rate China offered to Indonesia for the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed rail project. Besides, China has estimated the project at 500 billion baht ($14.2 billion), 100 billion more than Thailand’s projection. If Thailand has its way, the Chinese enterprises responsible for the project will incur great losses. And it might cause a domino effect of malicious price competition.
When high-ranking officials from China and Thailand cut the ribbon at a groundbreaking ceremony for the rail project last December, some Thai academics expressed concerns over the project. Sompong Sirisoponsilp, an associate professor with Chulalongkorn University, published an article on the Matichon website, saying the Thai government should slow down the pace of the project.
Such concerns are shared by an increasing number of Thai media outlets and scholars. And by using the terms of the Jakarta-Bandung project as a benchmark, Thailand keeps pushing the envelope and demands China to concede more benefits.
Thailand’s demands are not focused on reciprocity. If China accepts unreasonable conditions in every project while promoting the “Belt and Road” initiative, China will not acquire any “friendship” and the projects will cause consistent losses.
In the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed rail project, China offered Indonesia a series of unprofitable terms. It set a bad example for other countries that intend to cooperate with China in similar projects. Countries along the “Belt and Road” initiative are all hoping to get the same favorable treatment from China, which seems willing to work at a loss. The Jakarta-Bandung project is clearly not a good example for sustainable joint business.
Cooperation without a consensus of reciprocity cannot last long. If one side benefits much more from a joint project than the other, cooperation will eventually break down and inflict damage on bilateral relations.
Thailand has downplayed or even distorted the nature of the rail project. It is a business project, not an aid program. Chinese construction companies are willing to get involved in the construction of the rail project mainly because it is profitable. They are not moved by so-called friendship and are unwilling to take the risk of becoming loss-leaders.
The “Belt and Road” initiative is designed by China to create new growth poles and find new economic incentives for both China and the countries invovled. The process should be sufficiently motivated so that nations and companies are willing to participate and the regional economy can be boosted.
There will be no dynamic market if the profits from investments cannot be distributed properly. Recent years have seen quite a lot of critical voices against Chinese companies for failing to comply with labor, environment and quality standards. These standards can be met only when these companies have reasonable budgets. Low budget will only lead to low-quality work, which will jeopardize the common interests of both sides.
The ups and downs of the Chinese-Thai rail project not only display Thailand’s concerns, but also sounded the alarm for Chinese companies while going overseas. Before celebrating the success of high-speed rail diplomacy, China should fully evaluate the challenges and risks in the process of construction. China should hone its skills and techniques in the promotion of the “Belt and Road” initiative in case other countries believe Beijing can compromise its bottom line easily. Such a bad impression will cause huge negative effects on China’s national interests.
(The author is a research fellow at the Institute of Maritime Silk Road of Huaqiao University and the Center for China and Globalization. [email protected])