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BANGKOK (AP) — China's foreign minister said Monday he hopes construction of a new Thai railway can start immediately so Thailand will have better access to Chinese markets.
Wang Yi spoke during an official visit to strengthen political and economic relations, which have become increasingly warm in recent years as China has sought to spread its influence and Thailand's military government has loosened ties with the United States, its traditional ally.
The joint Thai-Chinese plan for a new 179 billion baht ($5.3 billion) railway from Bangkok to the northeast has been repeatedly delayed over differences about financing and other issues. Last month, however, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha issued a special order to expedite construction by decreeing that certain regulations could be ignored, including labor rules, so that Chinese engineers could work on the project.
The railroad is part of China's "One Belt, One Road" project allowing cross-border development and connectivity among Asian countries, Africa, China and Europe.
Wang and Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai spoke in a joint news briefing of their two countries' good relations and major long-term projects. Wang met earlier with Prime Minister Prayuth.
"We want to hasten the China and Thailand railway project, and make sure that construction can start immediately, which would allow Thailand to connect to the large market in China and become a hub of regional connectivity," Wang said.
Don called the rail project an example of ancient dreams coming closer to reality thanks Chinese efforts.
"China, over the past 40 years, has been able to have their people's dreams come true. They have transformed themselves from a country with millions of people living in poverty, to now being able to free those millions from poverty," he said.
Thai deputy government spokesman Weerachon Sukhondhapatipak told reporters that Prayuth "is determined to improve the already good relationship with China." He said Thailand is ready to strategically cooperate with China in all aspects to benefit both nations.
He said their development plans benefit both countries, giving the rail project as an example of a Chinese plan that meshes with Thailand's intentions to upgrade its technological abilities and develop its Eastern Seaboard.
Thailand's military government, which took power in a 2014 coup, has been criticized by the United States for failing to restore democracy and limiting civil rights, putting a strain on relations with Washington. At the same time, it has expanded links with Beijing and adopted policies — such as limited tolerance of social and political activism, and mass surveillance, especially online — that seem based on Chinese concepts of social discipline.