Military Exercise Warms Up Sino-Thai Relations
By WENDELL MINNICK, TAIPEI
Thailand and China recently completed their first joint military exercise, raising questions among observers about waning U.S. influence in the region.
Codenamed Strike-2007, the anti-terrorism exercise was held July 16-29 in the Guangzhou Military Region at Conghua, Guangdong, in southeast China. Featuring 30 special forces officers from the Royal Thailand Army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the participants practiced jungle warfare, marksmanship, martial arts, climbing, helicopter assault and anti-terrorist and hostage rescue drills. The last day of the exercise included a simulated assault on a drug smuggler’s base and a hostage rescue.
The Thai contingent was headed by Col. Sombat Koonyotying.
The exercise was the latest example of warming military ties between the nations. In December 2005, they cooperated in a search-and-rescue exercise, and in a March meeting in Beijing, Thai and PLA officials agreed to hold the Strike-2007 exercise and others.
Some in the U.S. defense community in Thailand note with concern that China’s ties are growing in the wake of the September military coup that cooled relations with Washington.
“It is significant only that it is the first time China has done these joint exercises, and it will probably open the door for future training with other regional militaries,” said Zachary Abuza, a specialist in Southeast Asian security issues. “That represents a sea change in attitude on the part of the PLA. China has been an observer at Cobra Gold for years and probably sees the utility of such training.”
The 26th annual Thai-U.S. Cobra Gold exercise, one of the region’s largest joint war games, continued on schedule in May despite U.S. frustration at the coup that ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
The United States suspended $24 million in military aid to the country and canceled military education programs. But China quickly recognized the new government and offered $40 million in military training and other aid.
“The post-coup interim government and the military junta in Bangkok have viewed Beijing favorably because it does not have the democracy baggage,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok. “The coup put the appointed Thai government in a tight spot because major countries in Europe and North America have not been receptive to junta-appointed Cabinet members. Beijing evidently does not have a problem dealing with less-than-democratic governments.
“Hence the Thai gravitation toward Beijing,” he said. “This trend will change when Thailand returns to democratic rule and Thai leaders can regain top-level access in Washington and European capitals, but the latent feeling will be that Beijing was a foul-weather friend in a time of crisis when the Thai military and post-coup government had few places to turn to for international legitimacy and acceptance.”
Pongsudhirak said the joint training with China was of a lower quality than in Cobra Gold, but nevertheless shows Bangkok’s determination to hedge its bets.
Bangkok has also found it easier to get weapons from Beijing than Washington.
In 2005, Thailand bought 96 WMZ-55B1 six-wheeled armored personnel carriers at $300,000 apiece from China North Industries Corp. in an agreement involving 100,000 tons of dried logan fruit.
Over the past 30 years, Thailand’s military has purchased a variety of Chinese military equipment, including two 2,590-ton Chinese Type 25T frigates, four 1,670-ton Chinese Jianghu III-class (Project 053T/053HT) frigates, 24 T-59 and 100 T-69 tanks, 16 130mm artillery guns, 30 37mm radar-guided anti-aircraft batteries, and smaller arms that include AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and ammunition.
Impact on U.S. Ties
Analysts said the warming China-Thai relations may hamper U.S. attempts to pressure the coup leadership to return to democracy but do not appear to be disrupting the U.S.-Thai military relationship.
“I don’t see this as any threat to Thai-U.S. relations,” Abuza said. “Thailand is a major non-NATO treaty ally with close military-military ties. The annual Cobra Gold remains one of the largest joint exercises in the region. Thailand is also bound to the U.S. in terms of educational ties and arms purchases. China tried to get Thailand as a client for its armaments in the 1990s but failed miserably — after the headlines — due to poor quality.”
Abuza, who teaches Southeast Asian politics at the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, said the Thai coup is an irritant to Thai-U.S. military relations that will be salved with democratic elections expected shortly after the Thai king’s 80th birthday on Dec. 5.
But Pongsudhirak said that Washington is losing influence not just in Thailand but in greater Southeast Asia.
“The U.S.’ recent cancellation of a summit with ASEAN leaders does not inspire confidence of greater U.S. involvement among ASEAN members,” he said. “It’s not necessarily a zero-sum game between Beijing and Washington, but the U.S. is clearly losing out and drifting at a time when China’s role is inexorable. The Thai move with PLA in the combined training is just a hedge in case the U.S. loses more interest in the region in the future.
“It’s not just this episode with Thailand,” Pongsudhirak added. “Other ASEAN members like Malaysia also have hedged. And it’s not just greater mil-mil cooperation; trade and investment are also a fertile terrain for this region to pay growing attention to Beijing while America is preoccupied elsewhere.”