Prawit pushes new era of military ties with Beijing

Prawit pushes new era of military ties with Beijing

As last year's May 22 coup has prompted the US to turn a cold shoulder to the Prayut administration, Thailand and China have intensified their relationship in what is being called a marriage of convenience.

Unlike Washington, Beijing has impressed Thailand's military rulers with understanding and support. The South China Sea conflicts are the major reason for China seeking a closer friendship with Thailand.

The two countries kicked off a new era in their relationship with exchanges of visits between Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon and his Chinese counterpart who offered to sell arms to Thailand at special prices. Both sides are also looking at working together on military research and development programmes through the Defence Technology Institute.

Apart from technical cooperation, both sides are taking part in joint exercises, and contemplating military arms deals. Gen Prawit, in particular, backed a proposal by the Chinese government that both countries engage in a joint air exercise.

The first round of this exercise, which the two sides have talked about for years, took place last November, with four Chinese J10 pilots learning to use the Thai air force's Gripen jets.

In fact, the Thai air force's decision to match China's J10 in the air exercise with Swedish-made Gripen, instead of of its F16 jets, had sparked speculation Thailand did not want to upset the US.

However, sources said the decision was purely technical as both the J10 and Gripen belong to the so-called 4.5th generation of jets while F16 is a 4th-generation jet.

During the next round of air drills scheduled for May, the Thai air force will send two Gripen pilots from the Surat Thani-based 7th Squadron to China to train on the J10 aircraft.

This follows visits by China's August 1st squadron officers late last month after attending the LIMA Air Show in Malaysia.

The air exercise is being undertaken at a steady pace, partly because both sides must learn to eradicate language barriers. Eventually, the two air forces hope to establish a joint exercise under the code name "Lightning Strike". 

The army and the marines are also joining the push for joint exercises. The army initiated an annual exercise, "Strike" with each side taking turns as host, while the marines are to undertake a drill under the code name "Blue Strike" which is scheduled to take place every two years. 

Chinese leaders have insisted the two countries should join military drills, much the same as the Thai-US Cobra Gold exercise. Some look forward to what could be dubbed "Dragon Gold".

In addition to the military exercise, the two countries are expected to enter arms deals with each other. China is one of three contenders proposing submarines for the navy for consideration, together with those from South Korea and Germany which are smaller.

The committee considering the submarine purchase said it liked the look of the diesel-powered submarines from China which cost 360 billion baht for two.

Apart from the Chinese submarines, the military is also eyeing L15 fighter jets from China for training which are to replace the aging L39 fleet that has been in service for about 30 years. Other models that are being considered include the T50 from South Korea, the M346 from Italy, the YAK30 from Russia and the Scorpion from the US.

It remains to be seen if the closer relationship with China will result in more Chinese weapons and military devices in service.

Wassana Nanuam is a senior news reporter covering 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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