Govt keeps US military close, China's closer

Govt keeps US military close, China's closer

The visit to China by top military brass last week was like killing two birds with one stone as it will help Thailand balance its military strategy between Beijing and Washington, while it sought help in solving problems with Cambodia.

Defence Minister Sukumpol Suwanatat, right, introduces army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha to Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie, second right, during their visit to China last month to foster better military ties. WASSANA NANUAM

For the first time in 15 years all leaders of the armed forces plus the defence minister visited China as a team on April 25-28. The last time Thailand did that was when Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh _ known for his close ties with Chinese leaders _ was defence minister. This time army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, navy boss Surasak Rounreongrom, air force commander Itthaporn Subhawong and Supreme Commander Tanasak Patimapakorn accompanied Defence Minister Sukumpol Suwanatat to China.

"We wanted to convey the message to China that the Thai armed forces assign importance to China. We're like a close relative. As for the United States, we are a close friend. We cannot pick one over the other. We still keep close ties with all the superpowers for the balance of power. But under the present circumstances, we have to stay closer to our relative than the close friend who is far away," a high-ranking source at the ministry summed up the trip.

Before the visit to China, Thailand's defence relations leaned towards the US as the two countries enjoy close cooperation in various military fields from joint intelligence operations to anti-terrorism campaigns, arms procurement and joint military exercises, particularly Cobra Gold each year. Thailand relies heavily on weapons and equipment from the US and the American dominance has inevitably led to the use of US doctrines and rules of engagement for the Thai armed forces.

China should have been happy when ACM Sukumpol told his Chinese counterpart, Gen Liang Guanglie, that "the full team for all Thai military leaders for an overseas visit was for China only. It will not happen during a Thai visit to other countries".

The two ministers, as well as Gen Tanasak and Gen Prayuth also held a private meeting for more than 30 minutes as the Thai side intentionally tried to send a message to Thailand's neighbours in the region, especially Cambodia, in addition to the US. The Thai armed forces are seeking support from China to understand the Thai position and be neutral on attempts to permanently solve the border issue as the close ties between Beijing and Phnom Penh are well known.

ACM Sukumpol told the Chinese military leaders about Thailand's intentions to maintain peace and stability in Southeast Asia with no plans to attack its neighbours. The minister did not name names, but clearly he was referring to Cambodia as the two countries are locked in a dispute over the overlapping territory around the Preah Vihear temple. The message was important in light of the fact that the Thai armed forces believe that China supplied weapons, including BM21 rocket launchers, to the Cambodian army during the border conflict last year.

The visit comes at a time when the US is expanding its role in the region and the dispute over the Spratly Islands between China and other nations has raised concerns in Asia.

But Thailand made clear its position on the issue to China. "We will not get involved in any regional conflicts. We will be strictly neutral," a source quoted ACM Sukumpol as telling the Chinese minister.

China also has ambitions to strengthen military relations with Thailand and other members of Asean. The two countries have conducted an army drill code-named "Strike" for the past three years. And their "Blue Strike" marine exercise is entering its second year this year when 150 marines from Thailand will join their Chinese counterparts in Quangdong province next Wednesday. Next in line will be a joint exercise between their air forces under the name of "Lightning Strike" after the two countries are ready. ACM Itthaporn said the two countries have to tackle the language barrier and the different rules of engagement of their air forces.

Thailand's Defence Technology Institute also agreed with the Chinese Defence Ministry during the visit to jointly develop the DTI-1G, a new multiple rocket launcher with a range of between 60 and 180km in a three-year project worth 1.5 billion baht. China also expressed its readiness to sell weapons to Thailand at "friendship prices".

The closer ties between Thailand and China could be a reason why the US Defence Department invited Gen Tanasak and Adm Surasak for an official visit to Washington for the first time in 19 years early last month. While there, the navy chief was given the Legion of Merit medal and the US also offered special military assistance to the navy.

The US navy also wanted the Thai navy to make progress on the government's plan to set up a centre on disaster prevention and relief operations at the U-Tapao base in Rayong province after Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra supported the idea. The plan raised public suspicions about a possible hidden agenda of the US to use it as a military base for other purposes in the region. Adm Surasak assured the US navy of its commitment on the matter but said that Thailand needed to make the public aware of the plan over the need to set up the centre. The navy chief also stressed the need to have both navy officers and civilians at the centre.

The visit also followed a trip to China by Ms Yingluck (with full backing from her brother Thaksin), on a quest for closer ties to Beijing. The two governments have several joint projects including Thailand buying tablet computers for its students from a Chinese company and China's interest in a high-speed rail project in the kingdom.

The prime minister has told ACM Sukumpol that future arms procurements "must take into account national strategy". It is believed that Ms Yingluck wants the ministry to seriously consider ending its reliance on one country, in particular for weapons, and the purchases must reflect friendships and bolster ties with Thailand's partners, and serve Thailand's interests including options for barter trade of Thai agricultural products for weapons.

It remains to be seen whether Ms Yingluck's message will have an effect on future arms purchases. The air force and navy plan to buy new helicopters with a push by the government to consider the Z-9 version from China. It was shown to the Thai armed forces delegation during the visit, but their preference is the Super Lynx made in the United Kingdom or France's Panther.

China also showed its 039 Song Class submarine to Thailand in another attempt to convince the visitors to consider the Chinese product. But the navy's attention is focused on a German submarine due to its European standard which Thailand believes to be superior to China's. A ministry source said ACM Sukumpol wanted Adm Surasak to consider submarines from other countries including ones made in South Korea and Singapore which use the German technology if the project is revived.

But the navy chief's position was to get a standard submarine as he was concerned about maintenance costs over the long run and did not want to be seen as having made the wrong choice for the navy during his reign, the source added.

One benefit of the trip by ACM Sukumpol and the military leaders was that they used the occasion to foster better ties among themselves through their work. They ate meals together every day during the visit, took breaks for chit-chatting and had free time together. All took place in a friendly atmosphere. They returned from China with the message that there is no conflict between the armed forces on one side and the government of the Pheu Thai Party and the minister on the other.

Wassana Nanuam reports on military affairs for the Bangkok Post.

Wassana Nanuam

Senior news reporter

Wassana Nanuam is a senior news reporter covering military affairs for the Bangkok Post.

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