Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba sets plans for Thailand

BANGKOK (AP) -- 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 signed an agreement to help set up a "smart digital hub" to facilitate trade between Thailand, China, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam.

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 a showcase government project called the Eastern Economic Corridor, where the digital hub is to be located.

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.