Early one morning in July 1971, United States Ambassador to Thailand Leonard Unger invited a group of Thais, including a young Foreign Ministry official called Tej Bunnag, to a working breakfast with then-National Security Council chief Henry Kissinger. O
At the meeting, Sulak Sivaraksa, a leading intellectual, said: 'The key to resolving the Vietnam War is China'. Kissinger was dumbstruck, but said nothing... we later learned that he was on a secret trip to Beijing," Tej recalled.
The young civil servant was to become Thailand's ambassador to Beijing, permanent secretary to the Foreign Ministry and later foreign minister.
Kissinger's mission led to the recognition of the People's Republic of China and formal ties between the United States and the communist regime of Beijing.
Though many people in Thailand played a role in the establishment of formal diplomatic ties between the Kingdom of Thailand and the People's Republic of China 40 years ago, Tej is perhaps the most quoted on the topic. He knows the issue well, has first-hand information and was involved in many key policy decisions concerning China.
Thailand had formal diplomatic relations with China for a long time. Relations with the Republic of China, known as “Taiwan or Chinese Tapiei” had to be adjusted according to international circumstances, Tej said. Beijing was more influential and Thailand could not forego building relations for the sake of Taiwan.
In those days, most major powers in the world, namely the Soviet Union, United Kingdom and France, recognised Beijing, leaving only the United States with diplomatic ties to Taiwan.
However, Thailand's decision to establish relations with China was not influenced by the US, Tej said. "Some senior people in the government at that time mulled the policy shift for a long time before formal relations were established in 1975," he explained.
July 1969 was a critical moment for Thailand when then-president Richard Nixon declared the Guam Doctrine signalling US retreat from Vietnam. That left Thailand, which was facing threats from the pro-China Communist Party of Thailand, to find its own way.
Between 1970 and 1971, Thailand tried to establish more contact with China via third parties such as Yugoslavia, Sweden and France, as well as through the Thai representative in New York, Ambassador Anand Panyarachun. On January 13, 1971, then-foreign minister Thanat Khoman said in a speech via Columbia Broadcasting Corporation (CBS) in the US that Thailand wanted cordial relations with China.
But building ties with a communist country in the peak of anti-communist campaigns was not easy, especially as the Communist Party of China was providing support to the Communist Party of Thailand.
"We [the Thai foreign ministry] spent nearly three years trying to convince security officials to agree to build normal ties with the People's Republic of China," Tej recalled.
Senior ministry officials visited China at least 23 times to familiarise themselves with the new China. The sticking points were the support of the communist insurgents in Thailand and the loyalty of Chinese people resident in Thailand as Thai citizens. These were resolved when formal diplomatic ties were established on July 1, 1975 by the Kukrit Pramoj government.
Diplomatic relations with China have been smooth since then, apart from a slight chill after the October 6, 1976 massacre of students in Thammasat University by ultra-rightist groups.
Thailand and China became very close after Vietnam invaded Cambodia and got rid of the notorious Khmer Rouge regime in late 1978. At that time, China helped prevent Vietnam from expanding into Thai territory and supported Thailand politically and militarily to build a coalition of three Khmer factions, led by Cambodia's King Norodom Sihanouk, to fight against the Vietnam-led government in Phnom Penh.
However, Beijing was disappointed when the Chatichai Choonhavan-led government shifted Thailand's policy to recognise the Phnom Penh government under Heng Samrin and Hun Sen until the 1991 Paris Peace Accord officially ended the Vietnam-Cambodia war.
Changing policies to meet new circumstances is no problem, Tej said. He was serving as Thailand's ambassador to Beijing at that time. "China was disappointed because we did not inform them of our policy change in advance," he explained.
Looking over Sino-Thai relations over the past 40 years, Tej said China really needed Thailand in the 1970s and 1980s. Now, however, the Thai leadership needs to seriously find out if China, which is fast becoming a major superpower, has Thailand in its radar.
It is good to maintain relations with China, but one should also be careful, the veteran diplomat suggested.
This is the first in a series of articles to mark the 40th anniversary of Thailand-China relations.