Joint air exercise with China highlights warmer ties

Joint air exercise with China highlights warmer ties

Thailand and China will embark on their first joint air exercise which will highlight closer military ties between the two countries.

The air exercise, "Falcon Strike", will take place at the Royal Thai Air Force Base's Wing 1, in Nakhon Ratchasima, from Nov 12-30.

Falcon Strike is named after other joint exercises, "Blue Strike" between the marines, and "Strike" between the armies of the two countries.

Altogether 180 Chinese officers and top pilots, who will be led by senior air force men at the level of deputy chief-of-staff, will participate in the event, which will coincide with the 40th anniversary of Thai-Chinese diplomatic ties this year.

In the air show, China will showcase its August First fleet, involving six J10 fighters and another spare aircraft, while the Thai air force will fly its Gripens and F16s.

Falcon Strike is a result of one year of preparation work between the Thai and Chinese air forces. They held a warm-up operation which began last November with five Chinese officers boarding a Gripen in an observation mission, followed by an observation trip on the part of Thai officers on board China's J-10 and SU-27 aircraft in May this year.

China has agreed to send only six SU27 aircraft to this first air exercise, while keeping the J-10s, which are equivalent to the F16 aircraft flown by the US, for a Nov 25-26 air show, which will also take place at the Korat air base.

There is speculation China may still want to keep the more advanced aircraft type a secret.

However, Falcon Strike is a symbol of closer relations between the two armed forces which stepped up after the May 22 coup at a time when Western countries, led by the US, turned a cold shoulder to the military junta under Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha.

While the West has sought to "punish" the military regime for its intervention, overthrowing the elected Pheu Thai-led administration, and applied pressure on the regime to restore democracy, China shows signs of wanting to draw closer.

The two countries have exchanged high-level visits, in particular between armed forces personnel.

A major by-product of closer Thai and Chinese relations is a Thai plan to purchase three Chinese-made submarines, worth 36 billion baht, despite strong public criticism.

Critics say they are concerned about the budget burden amid a sluggish economy. 

Yet the purchase plan, drawn up by a committee under Adm Narongpol Na Bangchang, then a candidate for navy chief, has won strong support from Gen Prawit, who argues the navy must have submarines of its own. 

While the navy is disheartened over repeated delays in the submarine procurement, Gen Prawit insists the plan can go ahead.

The only change to the plan, according to Gen Prawit, involves the procurement method, and an extension of payment period, from seven to 10 years.

The navy has assigned assistant navy chief Adm Kraiwuth Wattanatham to take care of the procurement plan, instead of Adm Narongpol, who lost the top position to Adm Na Areenij.

This shows the navy is keeping its hopes alive that the purchase will go ahead.

Political observers say the submarine plan and Falcon Strike are testament to closer relations with China, which has proved itself a friend indeed at a time when the Thai military regime needed some supporters.

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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