Thai-Chinese ties grow ever closer

Thai-Chinese ties grow ever closer

Despite efforts from the government to downplay its close relations with China, it is undeniable that the two countries have special ties.

The proof of these special ties includes the exchange of visits, ongoing military exercises which have intensified and a plan to purchase submarines from China which has so far been suspended. 

After the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) seized power in 2014, Western countries turned a cold shoulder to Thailand which made it necessary for the Prayut Chan-o-cha government to seek new friends such as China, Russia and India, to maintain a power balance. It's China that came to fill the gap.

However, the horrific bomb attack at the Erawan shrine in Ratchaprasong in August last year, which followed the deportation of Uighurs to China, put the Prayut government in the hot seat. Many blamed the deadly attack which claimed 20 lives and injured about 130 on the government's pro-China policy. 

Since then, the government has tried to create an impression that there is nothing special about Thai-Chinese ties.

Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon who, together with the top brass, has visited China several times in recent years, tried to play down the relationship.

"We are friends with every country, and never give priority to any nation in particular. We are not enemies with anyone," said Gen Prawit.

"Don't write in a way that we are closer to China because the US has pressured us into elections. That's not true. We have good relations with every country. We are not particularly close to any country," he told the media. But in reality, Thai-Chinese relations have become closer.

Gen Prayut, who was attending the Mekong-Lancang Cooperation meeting in Hainan, China this week, said that Beijing has released water from its dams into the Mekong River to help relieve the severe drought that has badly hit the country. The water discharge was made for the sake of cordial relations between the two nations, the prime minister said.

In addition, the closer relationship is reflected in heightened military ties between the two countries.

Since the 2014 coup, Thailand and China have intensified military cooperation that can be seen from a forthcoming joint naval exercise.

In the latest development, China agreed to increase the number of marine officers, around 500, to take part in the "Blue Strike" naval exercise together with large warships in Thai waters in May. Compared with the previous exercises in which China sent around 100-200 officers, this is the largest presence of Chinese marine officers ever for a single drill. The scale of the exercise which takes place biennially, with each taking turns as host, has also expanded.

The exercise is designed as a basic drill that can be escalated as a military operation (Military Operations other than War or MOOTW). In addition, there will be a drill for small marine units, and the use of amphibious vehicles, and other activities.

The Strike drill follows last year's joint exercise between the Chinese and Thai air forces which took place under the code name "Falcon Strike", and an annual joint drill between special warfare units.

Moreover, it seems the government has no intention of dumping the 30.6-billion-baht submarine procurement plan which has been put on hold for several months. Instead, the government ordered the navy to adjust the payment scheme, expanding the carry-over budget from seven to 11 years. Instead of using the central budget, the navy was told to spend its own budget in the hope of justifying the purchase. In defending the submarine purchase plan with its own money, the navy insisted that it would drop other procurement plans and maintenance.

As of last week, those involved with the submarine purchase met with Gen Prawit's team in what was seen as another attempt to push the plan for cabinet consideration. However, it's unclear when the general will submit the plan to the cabinet given negative public sentiment.

Now it's matter of when the Thai Navy will get the three submarines from China which have become another testament to the cordial relations between the two countries. 

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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