Grand infrastructure projects in the Asia-Pacific have a tendency to end up being much more challenging to implement than initially planned, as I warned recently in a look at China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (See: “The Real Problem With China’s Belt and Road”).
Within Southeast Asia, one project that has been key to China’s geopolitical ambitions in the subregion is a multibillion-dollar railway line with Thailand. As I have detailed previously, the project has been years in the making and has been proceeding in fits and starts due to differences over funding, feasibility, and even the speed of the trains (See: “China’s Grand Ambitions in Southeast Asia and the Thai Rail Deal”).
The recent round of controversy with respect to the deal erupted when the government of Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha declared that it would use special powers granted under Article 44 of the Thai constitution to circumvent legal and technical issues and expedite the construction on the project.
Irrespective of the merits of the project itself, the government’s decision has only intensified the concerns surrounding the process under which the decision is being made and led to a growing convergence of them into rising opposition to it.
The concerns fall along roughly three lines that will be familiar to those who follow such debates in other cases in Thailand as well as in other countries: the degree of democratization within the process; the extent to which the project is being politicized for gain either for regime legitimization or bureaucratic interests not necessarily aligned with the national interest; and the potential for technical issues to be subordinated to strategic alignment with the partner country.
On the first count, this project, as with many other issues, has been included as evidence that the junta-led government has little patience for the proper vetting that needs to go into these projects, which requires hearing from differing viewpoints, some of whom may either disagree with the initiative or may slow things down. The use of Article 44 is especially problematic in this regard. It had already sparked controversy when it was included by the junta in the 2014 interim constitution as it grants it absolute powers, with some declaring it worse than the imposition of martial law.
On the second, the claim is that Prayut and his government want to advance the project so it can serve as another feather in their caps even though it is not necessarily a good deal for Thailand as a country or the Thai people. Apart from the use of absolute powers to circumvent the process, there are concerns that genuine issues with the project – including terms governing the licensing for engineers to build the project and the fact that the project passes through designated farmland – will be swept under the rug. Experts and professional bodies surfacing on Thai media dissenting from the government’s view has only increased scrutiny on this point.
And, on the third, the charge is that Bangkok may be too keen to make progress on Sino-Thai relations such that the government is suppressing concerns that need to be addressed and might actually help Thailand get a better deal in ongoing negotiations with China. In particular, Prayut is seen as being overly eager to break ground on the project before attending the BRICS Summit in Xiamen in September so he has something to show to a partner which was warmed to Bangkok even when its ties with the West were frosty following the coup in May 2014.
The Thai government has already taken to rebutting some of these individual concerns, as it has done in the past with such episodes. And there is certainly something to the arguments it is making, including viewing the Sino-Thai rail project as part of the broader bilateral relationship that could bring Bangkok greater gains, including within China’s BRI.
But as I argued before when a controversy erupted over the Thai submarine deal, the merits of these arguments on their own matter less than the distrust in the government in some circles. Moreover, moves that are perceived to reduce transparency like the use of special powers only exacerbate the problem (See: “Did Thailand Secretly Approve its China Submarine Buy?”). That might ultimately be the real lesson here, not just for Thailand, but for other governments in the region as well.