Thailand and the Two Chinas

As we’ve all been inundated with coronavirus coverage, much of it being rather depressing, I’ve decided to write about random aspects of Thai politics and history not related to the ongoing pandemic. Here’s my piece last week on how Siamese cannon ended up at the storming of the Bastille.

This was an interesting week for enthusiasts of international relations as Chinese and Thai netizens engaged in a multi-day Twitter war that was sparked by perceived disrespect for the One China Principle. As I wrote in the Thai Enquirer, the episode revealed ordinary attitudes towards China in Thailand that belied official diplomacy. But the truth is that even at the highest levels, relations with the two Chinas was not always smooth sailing. Attempts to establish good ties with Beijing began early, while officials have long tried to build a diplomatic version of the #MilkTeaAlliance. This is the story of how Thailand navigated relations with China and Taiwan in the 20th century.

For those less familiar with cross-strait relations, some contextual clarification can be given as follows. In 1912, the Republic of China was established after the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty. But in 1949, the ROC lost a civil war to the Chinese Communist Party, which established the People’s Republic of China on the mainland. The ROC relocated to Taiwan, where its rump state continues to exist today; it also still officially claims sovereignty over all of China. According to the 1992 Consensus between China and Taiwan, both states agree that there is one China but disagree over who represents the legitimate authority: a “One China Principle.”

For Thailand, the choice over which China to officially support was dictated by global circumstances. The United States continued to recognize the Republic of China as the legitimate China, and Thailand, a staunch US ally and anticommunist partner, followed suit. Relations blossomed, to be sure. In 1963, King Bhumibol Adulyadej made a state visit to Taiwan and was warmly received by President Chiang Kai-shek. The visit was reciprocated with a visit to Taiwan from Chiang’s son and future ROC president Chiang Ching-kuo.

King Bhumibol and Chiang Kai-shek. Image credits: Taiwan’s National Repository of Cultural Heritage.

But even while relations with the ROC flourished, some in the Thai government were uneasy with ignoring the Chinese mainland. The push to secretly establish relations with the PRC came from Sang Phathanothai, a close advisor and confidant of Prime Minister Plaek Phibulsongkram (known in the west as Phibun.)

Sang had begun his career as virulently anti-communist. “Communists arrive, religion dissolves”: that was a slogan that Sang had dreamt up and spread to provoke anti-communist sentiment in Thailand. But upon the Communist victory in 1949. Sang began to change his tune. A sleeping giant China may be, Sang felt Thailand could not ignore China forever. He said:

I am confident that only China can be a true friend…unlike the United States…in times of hardship, only China will have the goodwill to help.

Sang thus encouraged Phibun to adopt what became known as the strategy of “two-faced diplomacy”. Officially, Thailand would be staunch supporters of the US and Taiwan and their anticommunist strategy. Chinese schools in Thailand were closed, and Thais of Chinese descent were asked to adopt Thai surnames. But at the same time, Phibun tasked Sang with building connections with the PRC.

Sang established backdoor communications with China. He began to write regularly to the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai. And he went one step further: in a move that harkened back to ancient practice, Sang agreed to send his two children, Sirin and Wanwai, aged eight and twelve respectively to secretly live in Beijing with Zhou as a symbol of trust and friendship.

Sang Phathanothai (Image credits)

And thus Sang’s children found themselves in the care of the leaders of a nation Thailand did not even officially recognize. They became the only foreign children living in Zhongnanhai, the compound that houses the Chinese leadership. Zhou personally took them to a restaurant serving Beijing duck and told them that he wished they would help deepen Thai-Chinese ties. Sirin would later recall how she saw Mao Zedong swim and dance many times. (“People often describe him as a tyrant, but I had some of the best moments of my life with Mao,” she told the Bangkok Post.)

But the leisurely and privileged life that Sirin and Wanwai lived would come to an end. For one, within three years Phibun was felled in a military coup led by Sarit Thanarat, while Sang was arrested by the Sarit government for pro-communist tendencies. Despite the turmoil in Thailand, Zhou continued to protect Sirin and Wanwai — until the Cultural Revolution, where the premier himself was seriously challenged. In the spirit of the times, the two were even forced to denounce their family on the radio. Eventually, Sirin escaped to London.

In 1972, Sirin was sent back to Beijing to interpret between Zhou and the Thai commerce minister Prasit Karnchanawat  (the same year that US President Richard Nixon shocked the world by going to China.) Finally, in 1975, Thailand officially switched diplomatic recognition from the ROC to the PRC, and since then has officially professed an unyielding commitment to the One China Principle.

But this would not be the finale in Thailand’s testy relationship with the two Chinas. Indeed, Thailand has since then attempted to maintain cordial relations with Taipei. When the last ROC ambassador to Thailand came to say farewell, King Bhumibol was quoted as saying “International relations is merely paper. Paper can be ripped, but sentiments of close relations cannot.”

A episode that was particularly explosive to China occurred in 1994, when ROC President Lee Teng-hui (a fierce advocate of Taiwanese independence) visited Thailand. This was not an official visit; the Thai authorities called it a “holiday” for Lee. In this round of “vacation diplomacy”, Lee and his foreign minister flew to Phuket and played golf with the deputy prime minister, Amnuay Viravan. The Thai foreign minister guaranteed that there was “no politics involved”, but Lee later admitted that if all he wanted to do was play golf, he could have just stayed in Taiwan. Lee then flew to Bangkok, where he was given an audience with King Bhumibol.

China, predictably unhappy, protested that the Thai government was not respecting the One China Principle. Many Thai newspapers angrily shot back that Bangkok did not have to kowtow to Beijing. One wonders what anyone then would make of the fact that almost thirty years later, this was the same discussion that hundreds of thousands of people would be having on a microblogging site.

If you found this topic interesting, more can be found in the following sources:

  • Interviews with Sirin Pathanothai in the Bangkok Post and The Nation
  • And of course, Sirin’s book The Dragon’s Pearl, which documents her time in China

(Cover image credits.)






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