It took the extraordinary vision of former prime minister Kukrit Pramoj to decide unwaveringly that the time had come for Thailand to establish diplomatic relations with the world's most populous nation. Both sides set forth conditions for diplomatic ties. The Thai government called for the immediate termination of all assistance and links with clandestine communist insurgents in Thailand. Beijing was keen to see US troop withdrawal from Thai bases.
For a staunchly anti-communist nation and US ally, Kukrit's move was considered remarkable, if not impossible to carry out. Former prime minister Anand Panyarachun, who served as the chief of Thai envoys at the UN, started to lay the diplomatic groundwork right after the US government, under President Richard Nixon, severed ties with Taiwan and recognised China in 1972. But it took years of preparations and careful and discreet diplomatic manoeuvres in Thailand before legal contacts, both civilian and diplomatic, could be taken. The conservative security apparatus inside Thailand was very much opposed to the normalisation with China as they did not trust Beijing. Their utmost fear was that China would continue to support left-leaning insurgent groups inside Thailand.
In the first few years immediately after establishment of diplomatic ties, Sino-Thai relations came under severe strain due to the rise of right-wing elite groups and the pro-democracy crackdowns over a year later. The violence of October 1976 almost threw the newly formed friendship into the dustbin. But then common sense prevailed, dictated by the rapidly changing regional situation and mutual desire to cooperate for peace and stability in Southeast Asia.
The Cambodian conflict and all around assistance provided by China to Thailand, as the frontline state of Asean, was the precursor to China's growing influence in the region. China remained the most committed supporter of Cambodian resistance groups since the end of 1978 to push out the occupation of foreign forces in Cambodia. From 1978-1992, Thailand and China worked hand in hand along with Asean, both in the military and diplomatic fields, to restore peace and stability inside Cambodia. The Cambodian peace agreement signed in Paris in 1991 was a testimony to their joint efforts and those of the international community.
After the Cambodian conflict, Sino-Thai relations have been transformed to encompass economic and trade relations. China has a huge domestic market to absorb the excess agricultural products from Thailand. Cheap consumer products from China also find new markets in Thailand before they venture into the rest of the region's markets.
In the 1990s, Thailand served as a conduit for China's diplomacy. Beijing lacked the confidence it has now in approaching the region because of its past associations with communist insurgent movements in several Asean countries. Thailand helped to augment trust and confidence in China's diplomacy and its peaceful intention in the region.
As a result, the region's fear of China gradually receded. Now, with China's growing economic and political clout, there is no need for such assistance. As the world's emerging superpower, China's cooperation has been sought after by all countries.
Sino-Thai relations have been characterised by close ties between prominent institutions and personalities. The members of the Thai royal family have made China their frequent destination. HRH Princess Sirindhorn has visited China more than three dozen times, not to mention other royal members. Defence cooperation between the two countries is very close and special. For instance, China's elite anti-terrorist forces held joint exercises and training with their Thai counterparts. Bilateral visits exceed more than 1000 annually.
More can be expected in coming years. When Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva visited China last week, he asked Beijing to promote investment and tourism in Thailand. He also asked China to dispatch 2000 Chinese language teachers to Thailand due to the popularity of pu-tong-hua in Thailand.
It would be interesting to watch which direction Sino-Thai relations are moving towards. Both countries realise that they could do more for regional peace and stability, especially on issues related to Burma and the Korean peninsula. Together, they can continue to secure the regional environment that would be conducive for economic development.
The current global economic crisis also provides an opportunity for China and Thailand, as the current chair of Asean, to work together to strengthen cooperation between Asean and East Asia.