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Thai PM Calls Vietnam a Friend, Not a Rival

Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, center, and Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha review the honor guard during a welcoming ceremony at Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, July 23, 2015.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha on Thursday brushed aside concern that Vietnam is eclipsing Thailand as a regional manufacturing base, saying Vietnam is a friend, not a competitor.

The comments came during a visit to Bangkok by Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, and at a time when a number of foreign companies are shifting manufacturing operations from Thailand to Vietnam, partly for logistical reasons.

"Today, we use the word 'friend' and not 'competitor,' " Prayuth said at a news conference with Dung, adding that Thailand was Vietnam's biggest trade partner in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations region.

Thai officials have expressed concern that Vietnam is attracting more foreign manufacturing investment, an additional worry for a government seeking to spur private investment to quicken slow growth.

A decade of intermittent political turbulence in Thailand, including outbreaks of violence on the streets, has added to questions about the country's suitability as a regional manufacturing base for some foreign investors.

Prayuth is a former army chief who staged a coup in 2014 to end the most recent bout of political tension.

Dung said at the news conference that Thailand and Vietnam had agreed to increase two-way trade to $20 billion by 2020.

Two-way trade between Thailand and Vietnam was $11.8 billion in 2014, according to Thailand's Commerce Ministry.

Since the 2014 coup, Thailand has sought to improve its ties with China, whose relations with neighbor Vietnam have been strained by a territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

China has overlapping claims with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei in the South China, Sea through which $5 trillion in seaborne trade passes every year.

Thailand and Vietnam said in a joint press release on Thursday that territorial disputes in the South China Sea had affected trust and confidence and "may undermine peace and stability as well as safety and freedom of navigation."

Both countries emphasized the need for full and effective implementation of a declaration on the conduct of parties in the South China Sea.

Rights groups have accused both Vietnam and Thailand of serious human rights violations.

Last month, Thai police forced the New-York based Human Rights Watch to cancel an event it wanted to hold at a Bangkok media club to launch a report alleging Vietnam's persecution of an ethnic minority.