In the early 15th century, Zheng He, the Ming Dynasty maritime explorer, visited the Kingdom of Siam several times. Zheng’s armadas were followed by generations of Chinese migrants who settled in Thailand permanently. The Siamese learned how to produce exquisite chinaware during the Sukhothai era, and Chinese epics, culture and history became widely known. The first group of exchange students from Thailand was sent to China and the first Chinese-Thai dictionary was launched 600 years ago. Today there are over 500 cultural exchange programmes each year among many bilateral development plans.
As HE Ning Fukui, China’s ambassador to Thailand, said: “There are not only diplomatic ties but also blood ties between China and Thailand. We need each other.” The ambassador was speaking at the forum “China-Thailand Ties: Behind friendship and relations”, hosted by Bangkok Bank.
Tourism in Thailand also benefits greatly from the Chinese, with 4.7 million visitors in 2014 rising to 7.9 million in 2015; 10,000 flights were added to the schedule between the two countries in just one year. Ambassador Ning suggested the rapid growth was due to geographic proximity and publicity portraying the richness of Thai culture, religion, food, landscape and way of life, such as a Chiang Mai-set movie called Lost in Thailand, online articles and word-of-mouth advertising among friends and relatives about Thailand.
“We aim for 10 million tourists a year,” said Ambassador Ning, “so both parties must work harder to raise the quality of services.”
Support has also been shown whenever the other country is going through a difficult time. Following the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, Thais donated money and necessities to the victims, and Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn herself donated 11 million yuan for the reconstruction of a school. Similarly, China sent experts and donations to help Thailand following the tsunami in 2004 and flooding in 2011. Even though an economic slowdown and agricultural slump have recently permeated around the world, China has promised to buy a million tonnes of rice from Thailand to help ease problems in the country.
Ambassador Ning said: “A friend in need is a friend indeed. No matter how bad the world situation is, we will always help each other to overcome it.” Sarasin Viraphol, executive vice-president of Charoen Pokphand Group, said it had been his dream to go to China when he was a child, and the dream could be realized when then prime minister MR Kukrit Pramoj initiated diplomatic relations with China in Beijing in 1975. Dr Sarasin said the countries have maintained the “continuity” of the relationship through 40 years, thanks to the royal institution and individuals who travelled to China, despite many changes in governments and policies. It shows that not only politicians but normal people can solidify and enhance the relationship.
Dr Sarasin thinks the Sino-Thai rail project is the most urgent matter at the moment, as transportation is key to more employment, higher income, lower transport fees and economic growth. The project will contribute to mutual benefits between China and Thailand, but unfortunately it is still in the planning stage after three governments. “We’re in the same boat,” he said. “There are storms and it is our shared responsibility to steer the boat towards the same goal.”
Joe Horn-Phathanothai, founder and CEO of Strategy 613 Company, was another speaker at the forum. His mother and uncle were sent to Beijing as political hostages, to live with Zhou Enlai, first premier of the People’s Republic. As he was showing family photos, he explained: “They were like hostages from Thailand but were raised like the stepchildren of Grandpa Zhou. Years later, both played an important role in strengthening the relationship between China and Thailand. Our family was honoured to be selected for the national mission.”
Joe said that joint investment is an effective way to maintain the close friendship. “Without investment, you might visit China once a year. But once you invest, you have to go at least once a month.” Learning from his mother and uncle, he asserted that it is necessary to have an intermediary who understands the situation on both sides. Important decisions can be made more quickly.