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Sino-Russia Ties: A Thai Perspective

28 March 2023

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By Mr Kavi Chongkittavorn, Senior Communications Advisor: Watching Sino-Russia relations from Beijing gives off a different feeling altogether.

Truth be told, the evolution of Sino-Russian ties has always bewildered Thai people because of their common ideological pathways and diversities, coupled with their long history of chequered relationships. A whole generation of Thais was brought up thinking that the two formed the world's most powerful communist bloc. They presumed the two systems were the same.

Throughout the Cold War, Thailand was with the West due to the threat from a communist insurgency and the desire to access development and technical assistance following the roller-coaster ride after the World War II (WWII).

In the early 1970s, Thailand followed United States detente with China. Washington wanted a new friend that could counterbalance the Soviet empire's growing influence. President Richard Nixon's historic visit to China was a milestone in Sino-US ties, which has now turned out somewhat different.

Today, the US identifies China as a strategic competitor. Luckily, Thailand has been one of the few countries able to nurture and pursue balanced policies towards China and the US. Therefore, Western experts and political pundits think Thailand's diplomatic practice of hedging its bets could backfire with intensified US-China rivalry. Some of them even say Thailand - as one of the five allies in the Indo-Pacific region - has seen this happen. Bangkok believes it still has the ability to find its own equilibrium.

To Thais, Russia and China are also competing with one another but in a more subtle and less confrontational way -- a sort of fraternal contestation, if you will. During the Cambodian conflict, they were on opposite sides. China was supporting ASEAN vis-a-vis the former Soviet Union which backed the former Indochinese countries. That ended when the Cambodian conflict was settled and all former adversaries joined ASEAN between 1995-1999. Since then, Sino-Russia ties have continued to be consolidated without a vexing regional problem. Meanwhile, US administrations, including those of former president Donald Trump and President Joe Biden, continue a China containment strategy, which has helped strengthen Sino-Russian ties even further.

However, within Chinese academic and intellectual circles, the notion of having 'no ceiling' or shang bu feng ding in Sino-Russian friendship and cooperation is overhyped and does not reflect what actually happens. During their longstanding ties, the two countries were close friends and then broke up, but their links and cooperation have never been severed. In general, the Chinese people sympathise with Russia due to the way the West has sought to marginalise the country. Some Thais also have had the same sentiment. However, the Thais and Chinese did not condone or support Russia's invasion of Ukraine. In fact, views about the Russia-Ukraine war remain very polarised among Chinese scholars and intellectuals.

Throughout the Cold War, they had common adversaries - the US and Europe. Now, the geopolitical climate has dramatically changed. The fall of the Berlin Wall might have led to the collapse of the former Soviet Union but not the core of Russian ideology and beliefs. The West had the chance to promote ties with China and nurture trust and confidence that would distance the two powerful comrades-in-arms and create healthier and more balanced relations among the superpowers. But that did not happen as China's rise has been too fast and does not conform to the Western developmental and governance frame of mind.

While the real Cold War has ended, the same demeanour and mindset are still strongly embedded among powerful Western policymakers. This mindset has influenced the trajectory of the Sino-Russia relationship since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Even without the Ukraine crisis, ties between Moscow and Beijing are surging anyway due to increased economic interdependence and a strongly shared belief in a multipolar world as well as indivisible security, which rejects military alliances.

Lest we forget, nearly all former Thai communists were Maoists rather than Leninists. It was only in the 1980s that the Thai perception of the two communist systems became more defined and distinctive. The former Soviet Union was the principal supporter of the former Indochinese states, which at the time were considered a hostile grouping against Thailand as well as the old ASEAN. It was only in 1987 that Moscow was able to kickstart fresh ties with the region due to its pledge to end involvement in the Cambodian conflict. A few years later, Russia underwent a tectonic shift on the home front, which turned out to be a hybrid political system of an inexplicable nature, and remains so to this day.

Gradually, Russia was able to increase confidence in its relations with ASEAN. Russia became a strategic dialogue partner of ASEAN in 2008. Russia and Thailand did not waste any time in cementing ties further, but the process was in an incremental manner. After all, Thailand's historical ties with Russia have always been a source of goodwill. In 2003, both countries agreed to exchange visa waivers - a first among the US allies with Russia.

Thailand's diplomatic ties with Russia go back about 128 years, but their relations have been stalled and morbid, lacking the economic dynamism of China. However, over the past decades, Bangkok has been very careful not to rock the boat with Russia. Under Czar Nicholas II, Siam relied on Russia's influence in Europe to protect its territory from being usurped by France and Britain. That has become the hallmark of Thailand-Russia relations which the Thais can never forget. Truth be told, the country's voting on the UN General Assembly's three resolutions on the Ukraine crisis showed Bangkok's level of connectedness with Russia.

In contrast, Sino-Thai relations prospered following the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1975. There were brief hiccups at first due to Thai political turmoil, which led to an exodus of young students in exile in China. However, things bounced back after the 1980s and have flourished. A few years after China's four modernizations kicked off in 1984, Thais understood that the two communist powers were different in style, thought, and actions. To them, China is more pragmatic and easier to form partnerships with. Thailand was among the first group of foreign investors that bet on China's future development. Today, Sino-Thai trade volume is roughly 100 times greater than Thai trade with Russia.

With stronger economic and trade ties, the perception of the so-called Chinese threat often associated with communist insurgencies, started to evaporate while the Soviet Union's negative perception remained due to its former ties with the Indochinese states, which later underwent dramatic transitions as well. Bangkok and Beijing are currently planning a grand commemoration of the 50th anniversary of their diplomatic ties in 2025.

It is interesting to note that US-China-Russia relations are interconnected at all levels -- economic, political, cultural, and strategic. In an article published in Russian ahead of his visit to Russia last week, President Xi Jinping hailed Sino-Russia ties as an example of a new model of major country relations guided by a vision of lasting friendship and win-win cooperation.

In Beijing, during Mr Xi's three-day visit to Russia, the Chinese media emphasised the importance of leadership and personal rapport between Mr Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin as the most important asset of their bilateral ties. It is one of the closest among global leaders today. 'Their frequent and high-quality exchanges have always been guiding the development of China-Russia relations,' according to the Xinhua News Agency. The pair have met nearly 40 times.

In addition, with such a solid rapport, Sino-Russia ties are stronger than ever with 'good neighbourliness, setting a good example for a new type of international relations'. As such, it remains to be seen how these extraordinary ties could impact global peace and stability in the years to come.

This opinion piece was written by ERIA's Senior Communications Advisor, Mr Kavi Chongkittavorn, and has been published in Bangkok PostClick here to subscribe to the monthly newsletter.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are purely those of the authors and may not in any circumstances be regarded as stating an official position of the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia.

Photo Credit: Bloomberg

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