Mar 19, 2013

Thailand - Australians slow to grab slice of $67b Thai infrastructure overhaul

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Thailand has embarked on a $67 billion infrastructure spending program to get the nation ready for the advent of the ASEAN Economic Community – a regional trading bloc taking in 600 million people with a combined GDP of $1.9 trillion.

The country wants to end its addiction to road transport, shifting freight from road to rail, easing Thailand's notorious gridlock and reducing logistics costs by building 3000 kilometres of double-track railway.

Transport Minister Chadchart Sittipunt has laid out the welcome mat for Australian companies keen to take part in Thailand's largest nation building project. But so far no Australian company has shown any interest.

"You are one of the best rail operators in the world," he told BusinessDay in Bangkok last week. "You are more than welcome to join the bidding."

But Mr Sittipunt warned that companies must be in early to stand a chance of winning a slice of the cake.

"You have to come here early, so we can understand your strength and you can understand our problem," he said. "Look at Japan and China, they came here a year earlier as technical advisers to the government."

Mr Sittipunt said the massive overhaul of infrastructure was crucial for the "connectivity" of the region. "In three years, we are going to have free flow of goods, services, capital and skilled labour," he said.

"The ASEAN Economic Community will be bigger than the European Union and if you include China, together we will contribute a third of the world's population. We will be a major player in the coming years."

Australia's ambassador in Bangkok, James Wise, said many Australian companies had been reluctant to take advantage of growth opportunities in Thailand.

"If it does not look like New Zealand, we are scared," Mr Wise said. He said Australians often underestimated the industrial prowess of Thailand and treated it as a mere tourist destination.

Mr Sittipunt, who worked in Australia for 18 months at the CSIRO in the early 2000s, said he saw a bigger role for Australia to play in Thailand's fast-growing aviation sector.

He invited Australian pilot training providers to set up centres in Thailand to cater for growing demand for pilots on the back of the booming tourism market.

"There will be a lot of demand for pilots in the coming years," he said, "We can start this immediately and it does not require much investment".

Peter Cai

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