The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Hu heads for Thailand in Atal wake

New Delhi, Oct. 14: Barely five days after Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s “excellent” official visit to Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Chinese President Hu Jintao is scheduled to arrive in Thailand to reaffirm Beijing’s traditional and strong ties with the country.

The three-day visit, slated to begin from Friday, will be Hu’s first state visit since he became President.

On the face of it, Hu’s visit was planned earlier and there is nothing to suggest that it was re-scheduled after Vajpayee’s tour. The Chinese President will also attend on October 20 and 21 the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in Bangkok.

But the coincidence of the Chinese President’s visit to Thailand within a week of the Prime Minister’s has caught the imagination of the diplomatic circles here. The significance of the back-to-back visits lies in the fact that many in Thailand, and in Southeast Asia, have begun looking at India as a counter-balance to the growing political and economic clout of China.

Among the Southeast Asian countries, Thailand is perhaps China’s closest ally. It not only has ethnic Chinese making up 25 per cent of its population, but has also been one of Beijing’s strongest backers in Asean.

China is regarded as a major player in the region, both economically and politically. Its trade volume with Asean is over $50 billion and trends show that within a few years, it will reach the $100-billion mark. Politically, most of the Southeast Asian nations have either land or maritime boundary disputes with China.

Thailand is unique as it has no such dispute with Beijing. Moreover, in the mid-90s, when China was pursuing economic reforms, it was a $3-billion package from Bangkok that boosted its morale. The move was seen by Beijing as a clear sign of “good neighbourly” ties.

This traditional bond has been further strengthened by the influx of Chinese tourists to Thailand, where tourism is one of the main economic planks. According to a rough estimate, of every three Chinese who go for a holiday abroad, two visit Bangkok.

The only irritant in bilateral relations is the US bases in Thailand and Bangkok’s close ties with Washington. But this has perhaps also spurred Beijing to keep the Thai leadership close to it.

India’s trade with Asean as a whole and Thailand in particular is significantly low compared to China’s. But the Indian leadership is keen to make up for lost time and the response that Vajpayee got both at the Asean summit and later in Thailand shows Delhi is being seen with much greater interest by Bangkok and others in the region than in the past.

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