By Patpicha Tanakasempipat
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Alibaba is investing $320 million in Thailand as the e-commerce giant aims to tap Chinese consumers' appetite for the Southeast nation's agricultural goods and for its tourism market amid growing competition from rivals.
China's biggest e-commerce company is investing more than 10 billion baht ($320.20 million) in a "digital hub" in the Thai military government's much-touted Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC), government officials said.
Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak told reporters on Thursday that Alibaba's digital hub will be a platform that connects Thai agricultural products to the Chinese and global markets.
Alibaba-backed Lazada is already present in Thailand and is one of the most popular e-commerce businesses in the nation of 69 million.
Chinese rivals of Alibaba are also beefing up their presence in Thailand and Southeast Asia.
In September, China's second-biggest e-commerce firm JD.com Inc said it will form a $500 million joint venture in e-commerce and financial technology with top Thai retailer Central Group.
And Kasikornbank Pcl said in 2016 it has formed an alliance with Tencent Holdings' popular mobile messaging app WeChat to provide electronic payment services to Chinese visitors in Thailand.
"Given Thailand's unique strengths in people and culture, we are confident of its future," Alibaba founder Jack Ma told reporters in Bangkok.
Ma, who met with Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, signed four memorandums of understanding with the Thai government on Thursday, covering trade, investment, support for e-commerce and tourism.
Chinese tourists make up the biggest number of visitors to Thailand. Chinese accounted for nearly one-third of last year's record 35 million arrivals which is expected to rise this year to around 10 million from 9.8 million.
The $45 billion EEC project, situated near the Gulf of Thailand, is aimed at attracting high-tech investment and is a centerpiece of the Thai junta's policy to boost growth.
But it has struggled to attract foreign investment.
Kanit Sangsubhan, secretary-general of the EEC committee, said that Thailand hopes Alibaba's investment in the project will result in other investments by its subsidiaries, business affiliates, and other Chinese investors.
"It builds confidence, especially among Chinese investors," Kanit told reporters.
(Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Muralikumar Anantharaman)