Thailand’s Pheu Thai government was inaugurated with the mission of revitalising the Thai economy, after nine years of disappointing growth under coup-installed authorities. Yet world events have not been kind to the new government’s plans.
While Middle East conflicts threaten to raise oil prices, high US interest rates have kept pressure on the baht, which has fallen to its lowest levels in 17 years. This pressure prompted the Bank of Thailand to raise interest rates to 2.5% in September, up from 0.5% in mid-2022, purportedly creating tension between the central bank and Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin.
Thai authorities had hoped that the return of high-spending Chinese tourists would mitigate other external pressures. This, predictably, has not happened, even after Srettha eased tourist visa requirements for Chinese citizens in September. Although the numbers of Chinese visitors have increased to about 400,000 a month in summer 2023, they remain well below the peak of one million Chinese visitors in January 2020.
Headwinds from China, Japan and South Korea
The reduced Chinese tourist numbers hint at deeper problems beyond oil and interest rates. Thailand could face prolonged challenges from weak growth and stagnating demand in Northeast Asia — China, Japan and South Korea. Thai politicians have looked to these countries as drivers for Thailand’s future growth, with Srettha and Prayut Chan-o-cha both investing considerable time appealing to Chinese and Japanese businesses. How much risk does Thailand face from economic problems in the three countries?
China’s slowdown is the most serious, as China is Thailand’s top trading partner...
In 2022, all three reported declining or stagnant GDP in US dollar terms, which will likely be repeated in 2023. All three have massive debts, which have generally grown faster than their economies have. All three have mediocre outlooks for consumer spending. A real estate crisis in China risks devastating the wealth of many families and reducing their likelihood to spend or travel, much as earlier real estate crises affected many Japanese families.
China’s slowdown is the most serious, as China is Thailand’s top trading partner, importing billions of dollars worth of Thai agricultural products like rubber and durian. Until Covid-19, more tourists in Thailand came from China than any other single country. As China’s economy faces a sustained consumption shortfall, in which consumers have scaled down spending for cheaper (and domestically made) products, it seems unlikely that Thailand’s tourism sector will fully recover soon or that Thailand’s durian industry will expand its recent China-driven boom.
Japan ranks among Thailand’s largest trading partners, primarily trading manufactured and intermediate products. Tourism from Japan and South Korea is also significant, with each sending 100,000–200,000 tourists a month before the Covid-19 pandemic. Korean tourism has mostly recovered, while Japanese tourism has not. Recently, there have been more Thais travelling in Japan than Japanese tourists in Thailand.
Alongside China, Japan and South Korea are the leading sources of Thailand’s foreign investment. Thailand has long benefited from substantial Japanese corporate investment, loans, and development assistance, including for major vehicle factories. But as Japanese and Korean firms face mounting competition and financial pressures, Thailand could see a substantial decline in new Japanese and Korean investments, and a drop in the importance and value of their Thailand-based manufacturing. So far this year, net incoming Korean and Japanese investment in Thailand is vastly below its mid-2019 value.
If the US and Southeast Asian economies... maintain strong growth, then much of Thailand’s manufacturing should withstand weakened demand in Northeast Asia.
Thailand has its strengths
Still, a closer look at trade suggests that Thailand is less exposed than first meets the eye. Thailand has large trade deficits with Northeast Asia’s economies. Much of this trade is in raw or industrial materials, such as metals and chemicals, and in electronics, like circuits and data processors, many of which are re-exported to the US and Southeast Asia. Exports to the US accounted for all of Thailand’s growth in exports of data processing equipment, such as computer hard drives, since 2015.
Such trade depends most of all on demand from final consumers. If the US and Southeast Asian economies — destinations of many Thai higher-value-added products — maintain strong growth, then much of Thailand’s manufacturing should withstand weakened demand in Northeast Asia. Instead of the broad consequences that some analysts fear, Thailand would face narrower effects on specific sectors. In addition to tourism, agriculture and raw material exports — such as rubber, fish and fruits — could face worse growth prospects, unless Thailand fosters new markets.
Trade with India is growing quickly but remains under 3% of Thailand’s total trade by value. Thailand is fortunate that, unlike Indonesia or Australia, its natural resource exports are weakly linked to China’s real estate industry, which is at the centre of China’s slowdown.
Thailand might succeed in attracting and growing its own advanced manufacturing, if leaders can demonstrate that they are still reliable partners for Japan, the US and other democratic countries.
Western-led “de-risking” campaigns complicate this trajectory. Thailand is embedded in supply chains stretching across Asia, particularly for the production of vehicles and electric or electronic devices. These depend heavily on trade with China. If US-China trade tensions further escalate, then whether Thailand suffers from “de-risking” could depend on Thai manufacturers’ flexibility to adjust suppliers. Thailand might succeed in attracting and growing its own advanced manufacturing, if leaders can demonstrate that they are still reliable partners for Japan, the US and other democratic countries.
Bangkok could also further attract expat entrepreneurs, financiers and professionals. Since last year, Bangkok has gained expats from other Asian business capitals, who appreciate the city’s lower costs, relatively better political conditions, easier visa policies and widespread use of English.
The ultimate challenge, as ever in Thailand, is in maintaining stable democratic leadership capable of instituting reforms.
The Bangkok and national governments could cooperate to entice foreigners and their businesses, including by reducing visa restrictions, attracting international schools, fostering multinational cultural organisations, expanding flights to global financial centres, easing rules for foreigners holding properties and relaxing restrictions on foreign ownership of domestic assets, particularly if the latter helps finance improvements to Bangkok infrastructure.
Thailand’s looming challenge is not only to overcome stagnation but also to withstand the growing problems of its economic partners. Most of Thailand’s risks likely concentrate around a few sectors, such as tourism and agriculture. These can be mitigated by helping industries pivot to new markets, and fostering integration with South and Southeast Asia as well as the West. The ultimate challenge, as ever in Thailand, is in maintaining stable democratic leadership capable of instituting reforms.
This article was first published in Fulcrum, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute’s blogsite.
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