Over decades, Thai royal family has forged personal bonds with China’s leaders
Late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej hosted most top leaders from Beijing, including Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin
The Thai royal family has a long history with China, and King Bhumibol Adulyadej met most Chinese leaders after Beijing and Bangkok re-established diplomatic ties in the mid-1970s.
Ascending to the throne in 1946, the American-born king was one of the few foreign heads of state who met late leader Deng Xiaoping soon after he regained power in November 1978, after the Cultural Revolution. Deng visited Southeast Asia, and Thailand was his first stop ahead of Singapore and Malaysia.
During the five-day visit, Deng held talks with Bhumibol in his palace and was later invited to attend the ordination ceremony hosted by the king for the crown prince, Maha Vajiralongkorn, then 26 years old.
Deng accepted the invitation and was the one who handed the crown prince a saffron robe – a move Chinese state media later said had won Deng “the heart of the people in Thailand”, where Buddhism is the main religion.
Though the king rarely travels abroad, he has met almost every top Chinese leader that has visited his country since bilateral relations resumed in 1975.
In 1999, then president Jiang Zemin paid a state visit to Thailand at the invitation of the king and queen, who hosted a welcome ceremony at the airport and a state banquet at the Grand Palace for Jiang and his wife Wang Yeping.
In 2001, the king met Zhu Rongji, the premier at the time, in the summer palace in Hua Hin, Thailand’s royal seaside resort. The king also met then vice-president Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) in 2000 and then vice-president Xi Jinping in 2011.
Bhumibol was widely praised for his efforts to improve the lives of rural Thais, and he expressed to the Chinese leaders his interest in their nation’s progress in agricultural and water conservation.
At the centre of the Indo-Chinese peninsula in Southeast Asia, Thailand is of strategic importance to big powers.
But ties have not always been so friendly. A long-term treaty ally with the United States, Thailand was initially suspicious of communist China during the first decades of the cold war, said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
“For good reason at the time, the threat of communist expansionism from both China and the Soviet Union was an existential danger to Thailand’s military and monarchy,” he said.
But thanks largely to deepening economic ties, relations between Beijing and Bangkok have been on a solid footing in recent decades.
A “most vivid symbol” of that bond, according to Thitinan, was the role of Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, the second daughter of Bhumibol. She is among the royal family members seen as closest to China, fluent in Putonghua and making frequent visits to the country.
She studied at Peking University and was named by Beijing as a “people’s friendship ambassador” for her efforts to boost exchanges between the two nations
The princess studied at China’s prestigious Peking University, and was named by Beijing as a “people’s friendship ambassador” for her efforts to boost exchanges between the two nations.
Maha Vajiralongkorn, who was designated crown prince and heir-apparent by Bhumibol in 1972, is less familiar in China. He has visited Beijing twice – in the spring of 1987 when he was welcomed at a ceremonial reception hosted by then vice-premier Wan Li in Beijing, and again in 1992 as head of a delegation.
His daughter, Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana, trained in badminton in Guangzhou in 2002 and represented Thailand in the sport at the Southeast Asian Games in 2005, sharing a team gold.
Also helping to keep the two nations close is the fact that Chinese ancestry is common to Thais in all walks of life, including the royal family. In a lecture at the Asia Society in Hong Kong in 2012, Sirindhorn said her family followed some Chinese traditions, such as paying respects to ancestors at the Lunar New Year.
Zhou Fangzhi, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the king’s influence was felt more in domestic matters on the mainland rather than on the diplomatic front. Beijing had few reasons to worry about succession issues, Zhou said.
“Given the prosperous economic cooperation, it is unlikely we will see any significant change in bilateral ties,” he said