Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba sets plans for Thailand

Jack Ma, founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, gestures as he arrives for a meeting with Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha in Bangkok, Thailand Thursday, April 19, 2018 during a visit to the country to announce the group's investment in the Thai government's Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) scheme. (Jorge Silva/Pool Photo via AP)
Jack Ma, founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, meets Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak in Bangkok, Thailand Thursday, April 19, 2018 during a visit to the country to announce the group's investment in the Thai government's Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) scheme. (Jorge Silva/Pool Photo via AP)
Jack Ma, founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, gestures during a visit to announce the group's investment in the Thai government's Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) scheme, in Bangkok, Thailand Thursday, April 19, 2018. (Jorge Silva/Pool Photo via AP)
Founder and chairman of Alibaba Jack Ma delivers a speech before signing four memorandums of understanding linked to the investment in the country during a press conference Bangkok, Thailand, Thursday, April 19, 2018. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
Jack Ma, front left, founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, shakes hands with Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha in Bangkok, Thailand Thursday, April 19, 2018 during a visit to the country to announce the group's investment in the Thai government's Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) scheme. (Jorge Silva/Pool Photo via AP)
Founder and chairman of Alibaba Jack Ma arrives for signing the memorandums of understanding linked to the investment in Thailand, during a press conference Bangkok, Thailand, Thursday, April 19, 2018. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
Jack Ma, left, founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, meets Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha in Bangkok, Thailand Thursday, April 19, 2018 during a visit to the country to announce the group's investment in the Thai government's Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) scheme. (Jorge Silva/Pool Photo via AP)
Thailand Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak, left, shakes hands with founder and chairman of Alibaba Jack Ma after signing the memorandums of understanding linked to the investment in Thailand during a press conference Bangkok, Thailand, Thursday, April 19, 2018. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

BANGKOK — The Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba has agreed to step up investments in Thailand as competition between online retailers heats up in fast-growing Southeast Asia.

The founder of the online shopping giant, Jack Ma, met with Thailand's prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, on Thursday and later signed several agreements, including one to help set up a "smart digital hub" in a showcase project called the Eastern Economic Corridor, to facilitate trade between Thailand, China, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Both Ma and Prayuth sought to allay concerns that Alibaba's growing involvement might increase Chinese influence without benefiting Thailand. Across the region, such concerns have deepened as Beijing expands investments in a slew of projects that help expand transportation and supply chain networks linked to China.

"Are we going to occupy Thailand, are we going to take away the jobs?" Ma said at a news conference. "We are not interested in that. We are interested in and focusing on enabling entrepreneurs and partners in Thailand."

Prayuth told reporters that the amount of investment involved would be determined later. Earlier, Thai media reported that Alibaba plans to invest 11 billion Thai baht ($350 million) in the Eastern Economic Corridor.

Reports said the hub, due to be completed next year, would also serve as a research and development center for Alibaba.

Prayuth, who as army commander led a 2014 coup, said he asked Ma to help Thailand to boost exports of rice, palm oil and rubber and to help the country's low-income and farm workers.

Ma told the Thai leader that Alibaba could help develop logistics systems to speed up delivery of farm products, he said.

"Therefore, this is beneficial to Thailand. Don't think of this as being disadvantageous for Thailand," Prayuth said.

The government said Alibaba also plans to help train Thai entrepreneurs and small businesses in e-commerce and to set up an online tourism platform.

Alibaba and Amazon both have been expanding in Southeast Asia, an increasingly affluent region of more than 600 million people. E-commerce still accounts for less than 3 percent of retail sales in the region but is growing quickly.

Last month, Alibaba announced it was investing another $2 billion in regional online retailer Lazada Group, doubling its stake in the company that it gained control of in 2016.

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Associated Press writer Kaweewit Kaewjinda contributed.

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