An unlikely casualty of US-China trade war: Thailand's rubber market
Updated 19:39, 13-Oct-2018
By Tony Cheng
The last few years have been difficult for Rattana Kaewsuan, and it looks like things are about to get much worse.
The 60-year-old woman is a rubber tapper, an exhausting job at the best of times.
Working through the night, in 12 hour shifts, in dark plantations infested with mosquitoes and snakes, Rattana carefully scrapes a channel for the sap to run out of the rubber tree, into an upturned coconut shell.
But the milky white liquid is now worth sixty percent less than its value five years ago. 
Now, with rubber prices at an all-time low, the money she makes is barely enough to survive.
And if that wasn't bad enough, US President Donald Trump's trade war looks set to push prices down even further.
Unfortunately, Rattana doesn't have a choice.
Rubber sheets stacked and dried in an oven. /CGTN Photo

Rubber sheets stacked and dried in an oven. /CGTN Photo

"I need to do it," she tells me. "I don't have any other job I can do. At my age I don't have any other option."
It's not that President Trump's tariffs are targeting Rattana, or Thailand.
But Thailand, as the largest producer of natural rubber in the world, is a major supplier of China's motor trade, and that is dead center in the US president's crosshairs.
Just down the road, a local middleman collects barrels of rubber sap from the tappers. 
The barrels are tested for quality, then tipped into a huge tank, waiting for collection by those who will ship it abroad. 
They've battled falling prices for years, as cheaper synthetic rubber swamped the market, and oversupply from producers in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia pushed the market down. 
The price of production is currently higher than the market price, leaving no margin for profit, and now they're concerned that US tariffs will shut off the one market that's thriving.
A rubber sap collection bowl. /CGTN Photo

A rubber sap collection bowl. /CGTN Photo

"There won't be any rubber tapper soon. They will quit because the wage is not worth it as the prices keep decreasing dramatically. Even now it's very difficult to find rubber tappers to do the job," says Pichai Chasawat, manager of a local rubber factor.
The point is well illustrated in the Rayong warehouse of Thai Hua rubber, one of the kingdom's largest exporters of rubber. 
Near the cavernous storage facility's door are several tons of top quality compressed rubber sheets.
The stacks are destined for the United States for use in racing car tires, wheels for commercial jet liners, and other very specific industries.
In the center of the room sits a second larger pile for domestic use within Thailand.
And at the back of the room, piled up to the ceiling, is the rubber destined for China, at least twenty times the amount exported to the rest of the world, a vital commodity in Chinese manufacturing and infrastructure development.
Inside the factory, hundreds of immigrant workers from Cambodia and Myanmar, wash, clean and sort rubber sheets from plantations all over Rayong.
All of these livelihoods hang in the balance too, as their employer, Thai Hua, weighs up the impact of Trump's tariffs on their industry.
But the trade war is forcing Thailand to take sides too, and with a majority of their exports going in one direction, it's clear who will gain in the long run.
Korakod Kittipol is the Executive Vice President at Thai Hua, and is keen to maintain customer bases in both China and America, but he also knows that as the trade war escalates, it will be increasingly hard.
"If you want to survive with your business, and the main market of your business is the USA, it means you need to move and change your strategy", he says, alluding to the fact that he can afford to lose American business, but not that in China.
It's unlikely that Donald Trump has given much thought to Thailand's rubber tappers, nor whether he would be swayed if he did know the precarious nature of their industry, but as he expands the terms of his trade war with China, casualties are starting to fall, and in today's global markets, they will be far removed from the ones he'd intended to target.
(Top image: Rubber sap runs down the bark after being tapped. /CGTN Photo)