Technological know-how, financial sophistication and solid higher education put Kingdom on track for central role
Over the past year we have visited Thailand several times, both for field studies and to attend forums. One of us (FDH) recently delivered a speech about the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) at Bangkok’s Asia Institute of Technology. What we discovered was that among all member-countries of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations, Thailand is unique. We believed that if it can collaborate with China under the rubric of the BRI, Thailand can emerge as Asean’s manufacturing centre and regional headquarters and play a pivotal role in defining Asia financial protocol.
First, historically, Thailand is a unique in Southeast Asia. It is well positioned geographically, has international expertise and has a highly developed and creative skill set in geopolitical manoeuvring. As a small nation, it successfully avoided the devastation of colonisation by foreign powers. As such, Thailand became a stabilising force in a region that had known centuries of bitter conflicts. The people of a nation which was neither conquered nor colonised surely possess inherent self-confidence, a quality that is in great demand in our globalised era. With such remarkable and successful experiences under its belt, Thailand today is clearly best equipped in terms of ability and mindset to flourish amid the presence of major powers in 21st-century Asia.
Second, although Thailand is famous for its tourism, it also possesses one of the strongest manufacturing sectors among Asean nations. For example, the popularity of Thailand’s electronic products is second only to those of Japan in this part of the world. That strength spurred Mark Carroll and Janna De Vos of the Australian–Thai Chamber of Commerce to write an article for the East Asia Forum in 2013 titled “Thailand to become the Germany of Asia?”, citing economic data that demonstrated this was no farfetched idea.
Third, Thailand boasts one of the oldest, most well-balanced and significant systems of higher education in Southeast Asia today. One of its flagship research institutions, Chulalongkorn University, has a high reputation among its peers in Asia. It was founded exactly a century ago and currently has some 37,000 students. Thailand’s higher education is no doubt one of the region’s strongest, probably second only to Singapore. Thai education has benefited from centuries of development unhindered by any colonial interference. Over the past few decades, the system has consistently pumped out the talents necessary for Thailand to demonstrate prowess in many arenas of human activity, especially in science and technology.
But it’s worth emphasising that the Thai higher-education system also possesses strength in a broad range of intellectual disciplines that would allow it to become a “breeding ground” for Thai experts who understand the history, culture, economic and other aspects of China. Such an understanding would place Thailand in a unique and prominent position among its Asean partners in dealing with China.
Fourth, Thailand can and should proactively participate in the Asia Financial Cooperation Association (AFCA) with the goal of stabilising regional finance as well as development. Under the rubric of the BRI, China created the AFCA with the aim of ensuring that Asian nations can collectively maintain regional financial stability via interconnection and collaboration.
As the first nation to be hit by the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Thailand today has both the experience and the responsibility to
be a pivotal point in the AFCA.
Indeed, as Asia’s economy continues to flourish and regional banking systems rise, financial activities are sure to multiply impressively. As well as enhancing traditional commercial finance, Bangkok’s efforts to grow cross-border syndicated loans, insurance management businesses, anti-financial-fraud measures and high-end business education and training could make Thailand central to AFCA’s platform and China’s most important partner in pushing emerging technologies, innovation industries and Internet finance. Finally, Thailand has the potential to be a driver of the global trend in financial digitisation.
Asean is a bloc of 10 nations with a population of 640 million – which represents both a strength and a weakness. Its economies are of diverse levels and types. To become a unified force and be reckoned with in the global economy, the interaction of financial systems of different countries should and must be seamless.
Thailand, thanks to its relative size and strength, is in an ideal position to drive this process.
In a nutshell, we believe that Thailand, with its financial and technological prowess, coupled with its historical strength, can and should view China both as a “client” – as was the case in recent high-speed rail negotiations – and as customers. After all, the China-led BRI has to be a “two way street”.
In this tenor, Thai businesses, in particular those from the manufacturing sectors, should be working in tandem with Thai universities to explore the 1.4-billion-people Chinese market. We believe that the BRI interactions in Thailand can not only serve Thailand well in the short and long run, but also become an important “case study” for China in its dealings with foreign countries.
Feng Da Hsuan and Liang Hai Ming are senior fellows at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Nanyang Technological University. They also work at the China Silk Road iValley Research Institute, where Feng is senior adviser and Liang is chairman and chief