China has been accelerating its foreign direct investments into the kingdom, even as other investors have pulled out. Thai officials are hopeful that this trend will continue.
According to the Bank of Thailand, foreign direct investment (FDI) in Thailand declined drastically as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Between 2018 and 2019, FDI plunged from US$13.18 to US$4.79 billion. In 2020, it fell to minus US$4.84 billion (see Figure 1). Since 2019, FDI outflow has been higher than incoming foreign investments. The decrease in FDI inflow appeared to be mainly from investors from Europe, especially the United Kingdom, Denmark, Netherlands and Belgium. Only Japan, Singapore, China and Hong Kong remain the core investors in Thailand.
At a time when others have been pulling out, China’s investments into Thailand have been steadily increasing throughout this pandemic period. Notably in 2019, China’s investment applications surpassed Japan for the first time – with an investment value of US$ 8.723 billion under 203 approved projects, dwarfing Japan’s investment value of US$ 2.436 billion (277 projects) and third-ranked Hong Kong’s investment value of US$ 1.210 billion (64 projects).
In terms of total FDI stock (see Figure 2), Japan unsurprisingly remains Thailand’s core investor, since several large-scale Japanese companies established production bases in Thailand well before the pandemic. Japan also remains a keen and active investor in Thailand – as reflected by BOI’s 2020 ranking which saw Japan regain the top ranking, with an investment value of US$ 2.531 billion with 211 approved projects. China’s level of FDI into Thailand ranked second in 2020 – with an investment value of US$ 1.048 billion with 164 approved projects.
The pattern of Japan and China’s FDI are distinct in two aspects. Firstly, while Japanese companies have kept their well-established production bases in Thailand to maintain their investments in core industries, Chinese investors are shifting their attention to new growth areas, focusing their investment in Thailand to connect with Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) opportunities. Rather than viewing Thailand as a traditional export manufacturing hub, Chinese investors now see the potential of Thailand’s strategic location, as an international-oriented business hub to expand their market outreach within ASEAN and beyond.
Secondly, the acceleration of Chinese investors’ interest also stems from their interest in various industrial sectors and regions across Thailand. For example, Chinese investment ranks first in at least four Special Economic Zones (SEZs) along the Thai borders. Nong Khai SEZ and Mukdahan SEZ in North East, Chiang Rai SEZ in the North, and Kanchanaburi SEZ in the West.
…Chinese investment ranks first in at least four Special Economic Zones (SEZs) along the Thai borders.
In the northeastern region, Chinese investors are involved mainly in the business of real estate, building construction, goods logistics and transportation. In the Chiang Rai SEZ, businesses tend to be related to general goods wholesaling, jewelry, agricultural supplies and material, goods logistics and transportation. In the west bordering Myanmar, Chinese investors are engaged in mining and metal business or real estate. While Chinese investment in both Songkhla SEZ of the south and Sa Kaeo SEZ of the east focus on manufacturing rubber goods and products, clothes and bedding material and real-estate business, Chinese investment in Tak SEZ of the west and Nakhon Phanom SEZ in the northeast invest in manufacturing of electric equipment, real-estate and building construction. The wide scope of Chinese investment across various industrial sectors and regions underscores the popularity of Thailand as an investment location among Chinese investors. They have probably been attracted by various internal and external factors; infrastructure support, tax incentives and cheap labor rates.
Thai officials, especially BOI analysts are expecting the Chinese FDI inflows to increase steadily by early 2022, and are hopeful that Chinese investments will remain an instrumental source of FDI for Thailand over the next 5–10 years. According to a Siam Commercial Bank survey conducted in May-June 2020, 22 per cent of 170 Chinese investors in Thailand expect to maintain their existing levels of investment, and 66 per cent of foreign investors plan to increase investment in Thailand over the next two years.
The Thai government should seize the opportunities afforded by keen Chinese investment interest to further develop the Thai border economies and help connect the Upper Mekong region to BRI opportunities. In particular, new industries supporting environmentally-friendly and innovative technologies and services could be enlarged today by leveraging on Chinese FDI with mutual gains for both countries.
Aranya Siriphon is currently Assistant Professor at Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Faculty of Social Sciences, Chiang Mai University, Northern Thailand.
Fanzura Banu was Research Officer at the Regional Social and Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.