BANGKOK - Thailand is moving forward on a controversial and long-pondered water diversion project after the plan drew interest from a major Chinese firm, a move that could give Beijing a new outpost for its sweeping Belt and Road Initiative.
Under the leadership of Thailand's powerful Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, the country's National Environment Board in September approved a crucial environmental impact assessment for the Yuam River water diversion project.
The board had rejected assessments for the project twice before, most recently in December 2019. September's about-face came weeks after local news reports that an unnamed Chinese firm was offering to build the project for just over half the estimated $2.1 billion price tag at its own expense and in only four years instead of the projected seven.
The reports of China's interest came from Veerakorn Kamprakob, a National Assembly member from the Phalang Pracharat, the party of both Prawit and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha that dominates Thailand's ruling coalition.
In an interview with VOA, Veerakorn confirmed that a Chinese firm had sent him the offer. He also identified the company as state-owned Norinco International, a civil engineering subsidiary of Chinese arms maker Norinco Group with listed projects across Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
The lawmaker said he took Norinco's proposal to Prayut about six months ago and that the prime minister liked the company's offer to build the project for only $1.2 billion and pay for all of it.
"The prime minister said that's very interesting, because right now Thailand, since we have to cope with COVID-19, we don't have much money to invest on this project," Veerakorn said.
"So the prime minister said if there is such an offer from the Chinese company, why not? We consider this seriously," he added. "The prime minister already told the Irrigation Department to consider on this offer."
The Irrigation Department and spokesmen for the government and prime minister did not reply to VOA's requests for comment. Nor did Norinco International.
China courting Thailand
A string of Thai governments has been contemplating the megaproject since the 1990s to help meet the growing demand for water from farmers in central Thailand.
In what would be a first for the country, a massive pipeline more than 8 meters in diameter would run 61 kilometers underground, funneling water to the Bhumibol Reservoir from the Yuam River near Thailand's border with Myanmar. The plan also calls for a new reservoir with a dam on the Yuam River to feed the pipeline.
Norinco's apparent offer to make the project happen would be Beijing's latest effort to expand its BRI footprint in Thailand, said Pongphisoot Busbarat, an assistant professor at Thailand's Chulalongkorn University who studies Thai-China relations.
A photo of the Yuam River. (Photo Courtesy/Pianporn Deetes/International Rivers)
It would follow a tie-up between the China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation and the State Railway of Thailand for a high-speed rail line connecting Bangkok to the central province of Nakhon Ratchasima, and another between China Railway Construction Corporation and Thailand's CP Group for a high-speed rail network linking a trio of airports serving Bangkok and the beach resort of Pattaya.
"So with this kind of overall picture you can see of course the Chinese [are] trying to expand [their] influence and role in infrastructure projects in Thailand under the BRI," Pongphisoot said.
"This Yuam water diversion I think somehow can fit well. At least it's a good opportunity [for China] to expand these activities in Thailand," he added.
Pongphisoot said Thailand's sudden blessing of the Yuam River project's environmental impact assessment may also suggest that the government is starting to relax its typically wary view of China's BRI push across Southeast Asia.
"I think this shows that the government is happy to let the Chinese come in more and more," he said.
Analysts say Thailand has been a relatively hard sell on big infrastructure ventures for Beijing compared with neighbors Cambodia, Laos and, until a few years ago, Malaysia, which each host a number of BRI projects of their own. They include pieces of China's plans for a high-speed rail line one day running seamlessly from Kunming in its landlocked southwest to the bustling seaports of Singapore, winding through Laos, Thailand and Malaysia along the way.
Thailand 'pushing back'
Chinese engineers and work crews are due to finish the Laos stretch of the line by the end of the year, having faced little resistance from its poor, tiny neighbor.
Thailand, by contrast, has thus far approved less than a third of the length of track that would run from Bangkok to the border with Laos, and even that took more than 30 rounds of fraught negotiations with China over many years.
With most of its heavy industry concentrated around Bangkok, Thailand has balked at Beijing's calls to commit to the entire line up to Laos and insisted on shopping around for the best loans and equipment instead of tying itself to China for either, said Murray Hiebert, a senior associate with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a U.S. think tank.
He said stiff resistance from environmentalists and a web of red tape strung up by a conservative, independent civil service corps have also played their parts in killing a number of projects China has tried to push on Thailand over the years.
"So it's been a tough slog," said Hiebert, author of Under Beijing's Shadow: Southeast Asia's China Challenge.
The analyst said the same forces, in addition to China's own economic woes, are likely to keep the Yuam River project from breaking ground anytime soon.
"Yes, generally China would like a bigger role in Thai economic projects, but Thailand has been pushing back. ... But China also has been pulling in its tentacles a little bit under COVID and the economic slowdown in China. So right now we don't really have a good indicator of where China is going with the BRI. It's not like it's stopping projects that are already existing in Indonesia or Malaysia, but you don't see a lot of new projects that are actually being announced, signed and being begun since early 2020," he said.
Rights groups in Thailand are opposing the project already, worried about the villages the new reservoir would displace and the stretches of protected forest the underground pipeline would uproot.
"The project will have adverse impacts on Karen indigenous peoples living in the impacted areas but who [have] not been meaningfully consulted. There will be impacts on watershed areas, agricultural lands and access to natural resources," said Pianporn Deetes, Thailand campaign coordinator for International Rivers, which advocates for sustainable water resource management.
She said the assessment the National Environment Board just approved was "deeply flawed" for misrepresenting and overstating the opening rural communities and nongovernment groups were given to vent their views.
Veerakorn, the National Assembly member, insisted repeatedly that the project would be opened up for international bidding, possibly by year's end, and that the best offer would prevail.
Pianporn said the lawmaker's lobbying for Norinco was tipping the scales.
"It's obvious that this is political," she said. "If the project is considered in [a] responsible and accountable manner, it would not have been approved."