High-Level Plenary
Bhokin Bhalakula: ASEAN nations can serve as a bridge
December 21, 2023

Bhokin Bhalakula

Former President of Parliament and Deputy Prime Minister, Thailand

Excellencies, distinguished guests, dear friends, thank you very much for inviting me to this prestigious high-level plenary of the Hong Kong forum on U.S.-China relations. I would like to share insights from the perspective of Thailand, and the ASEAN community on the crucial matter of improving relations between the United States and China.

As a long-term politician active in Thailand, China and the Association of Southeast Asia or ASEAN, I have witnessed firsthand complex dynamics between these two great powers over the decades. The U.S. and China have the world's largest economies, as you know, with the U.S. GDP at USD 23 trillion, and China at USD 17 trillion. They also possess the world's largest military, spending USD 750 billion and USD 245 billion respectively, on defense annually.

Here in Thailand, we see both the opportunities and challenges of navigating relations with the U.S. and China. The U.S. is Thailand's third largest trading partner, with around USD 46 billion in total trade in 2021. Major American companies like Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Emerson have invested tens of billions in Thailand over the decades. However, since the 2014 coup, relations with the U.S. have been strained, with cuts in military assistance, and some sanctions imposed, because Thailand tried to be more closer to China.

Meanwhile, in 2019, China became Thailand's largest trading partner, with two-way trade reaching USD 80 billion. Nearly 11 million Chinese tourists visited Thailand that year. China is also Thailand's largest source of foreign direct investment, pouring in billions into infrastructure and technology projects. However, many Thais are concerned about growing Chinese influence in our economy, and Beijing's control over the Mekong River’s water resources. Balancing relations with both powers remain a priority but also a challenge for my country.

The United States and China, as the world's two largest economies, as mentioned, play a monumental role in shaping the global economic and geopolitical landscape. Their relationship spans across, as some speakers just mentioned: technology, security, history and culture. It is crucial to recognise that tensions and misunderstanding between these two giants reverberate across the world affecting economies, supply chains, our lands, and international stability.

In 2019, U.S.-China trade in goods and services amounted to a staggering USD 737.10 billion. These economic ties are not confined to just the two nations, they intricately link with ASEAN countries making the region of a vital node in the global supply chain. Thailand as one of the economic powerhouses in ASEAN has greatly benefited from the stable U.S.-China relations. Our exports to the U.S. and China last year totaled USD46 billion and USD 80 billion respectively. Any prolonged disruption in the U.S.-China relations could adversely impact ASEAN economies, affecting millions of jobs and livelihoods.

However, we also cannot ignore the risks posed by this rivalry. Across the wider region, tensions between the two powers create divisions, even within ASEAN. Some nations align more closely with Washington, others with Beijing. They are already pressures testing ASEAN unity. The conflict between the U.S. and China could wreck South Asia’s supply chains and decimate our economies. Unity and centrality must be maintained within ASEAN. In recent years, relations between the U.S. and China have grown increasingly competitive and confrontational.

According to a Pew Research poll, over 70% of Americans now view China unfavourably. Issues like trade deficits, technology transfer, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the South China Sea and human rights have strained ties. Mutual trust is declining as disputes multiply. From imposing tariffs on billions in goods to dangerous military encounters. The two sides seem to be on a collision course. This growing rivalry poses grave risks in the region of peace and prosperity. However, I believe wisdom and pragmatism can still prevail.

As the U.S. and China navigate intense competition, cooperation remains possible and necessary in areas of mutual interest. ASEAN can play a constructive role in managing tensions and fostering stability. Therefore, I recommend several steps to improve U.S.-China relations.

First and foremost, the U.S. and China must make meaningful efforts to rebuild trust. Right now, a fundamental lack of trust is poisoning nearly every aspect of this vital relationship in every aspect. To rebuild trust, both sides need to restore open lines of communication and find ways to work together on shared interests. There is a need to promote dialogue and understanding. Both the U.S. and China must engage in sincere, transparent, and open communication. Track II dialogues and diplomatic initiatives must be intensified, fostering an environment where concerns can be addressed constructively.

Secondly, trade imbalances and tariffs have been significant points of contention. With our deep economy and cultural ties to both the US and China, ASEAN nations, including my country, Thailand, can serve as a bridge; encouraging fair trade practices and fostering economic cooperation. Bilateral and multilateral trade agreements should be explored to ensure a level playing field for all nations involved.

In particular, I believe ASEAN can be an invaluable conduit for trust-building. For decades, our 10 member states have successfully managed relations with the major powers through dialogue, engagement, and pragmatic cooperation. The ASEAN way, grounded in consensus and non-interference, offers important lessons for navigating big power relations.

At the regional level, existing ASEAN-led mechanisms like the East Asia Summit already provide useful platforms for the U.S., China and other Asia-Pacific countries to communicate and collaborate. ASEAN can explore how to best utilize and adapt these mechanisms to promote stable U.S.-China ties. We can also serve as an honest broker when tensions arise. Our equidistant and neutral position allows ASEAN to engage all parties frankly and directly. During past periods of difficulty, ASEAN has used this role productively to defuse crises and keep communication open.

Next, regional security is paramount, collaborative efforts are needed to address concerns related to the South China Sea and other regional flashpoints. ASEAN can play a pivotal role in facilitating dialogue and promoting peaceful solutions, ensuring stability in the region. We also need to invest in education and people-to-people exchanges. I insist this. Why? Because Education and cultural understanding are bridges to lasting peace. Scholarships, exchange programs, and cultural initiatives can promote mutual respect and friendship between nations. These exchanges lay the foundation for a future generation that values cooperation and diplomacy, not conflicts and wars. Beyond this diplomatic arena, South Asia offers tremendous economic opportunity, and promises cooperation.

Our dynamic economies and strategic location make us a natural hub for trade, investment and infrastructure connectivity. By deepening economic integration, the U.S. and China can foster healthy interdependence rather than unhealthy competition. In my opinion, the U.S.-China investment in ASEAN infrastructure projects can spur economic growth, create jobs, and enhance connectivity. This not only benefits the region, but also builds trust and relationships between the two big countries.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) free trade agreement involving ASEAN, China and others countries covers 30% of global GDP and population - immense potential for collaboration.

Both the U.S. and China are critical players in addressing climate change and sustainable development. Collaborative efforts in renewable energy, environmental conservation, and sustainable development can showcase the positive impact of cooperation, setting an example for the world. Innovation knows no borders. Collaboration in technology, research, and development can lead to groundbreaking discoveries. ASEAN can serve as a hub for such collaborations, fostering an environment where innovation thrives and benefits humanity.

Dear friends, with the closer approaches of the two countries recently, as mentioned in this forum by the two ambassadors from China and the U.S., are good news for us. And, in my opinion, with the fear that the war in Gaza at present will expand and affect the world economy, I'm glad to hear that the U.S. and China have mutually sought ways to bring peace to the region. I hope this kind of cooperation and understanding will lead to other areas mentioned above.

In conclusion, the path to improving the U.S.-China relations requires concerted efforts from all parties involved. As representatives of Thailand and ASEAN, we stand at the intersection of this global relationship by promoting dialogue, fostering economic cooperation and addressing security concerns, including investing in education and people-to-people exchanges, we can pave the way for a more stable and harmonious world.

Let us remember that the choices we make today will shape the future for generations to come. With wisdom, diplomacy and collaboration, we can navigate the complexities of the U.S.-China relations, ensuring a future where cooperation prevails over conflict, and understanding triumphs over division. There are no quick or easy solution, dear friends. But if we persist step by step on this long journey, I hope that we all can reach a better destination. The time for leadership and engagement from all sides is now.

Thank you very much.

Related topics