Thailand is soon likely to be on the list of the Asia-Pacific countries where US troops will be based on a permanent basis. Right now, the Pentagon is mulling its return to the U-Tapao Royal Thai Navy Airfield which was a military base for the USAF B-52 bombers during the Vietnam War in the early 1970s to launch airstrikes on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
Located 40 kilometers from the Thai resort of Pattaya, U-Tapao also serves as an international civil airport which mainly receives tourist charter flights from Russia, the CIS countries and those of Eastern and Western Europe. Speaking at a regional security conference in Singapore earlier this month, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that NASA was weighing the use of U-Tapao as its basic airfield which would help implement its regional meteorological program. Panetta also said that the US would shift 60 percent of its naval forces to Pacific ports, a move that commentators say is designed to contain China’s growing military clout.
It is clear that conducting atmospheric studies will hardly be the only goal of the US base in U-Tapao. Speaking on condition of anonymity earlier this month, a spokesman for the Royal Thai Armed Forces Headquarters said that Bangkok is concerned over China’s reaction to the possible use of U-Tapao airfield by the United States which Beijing fears may be used for collecting intelligence information.
These concerns seem well-grounded given that there is already a small-sized US company in U-Tapao which deals with refueling US planes and ships which transport US servicemen and military supplies to Afghanistan and Iraq. Speculation is also rife that U-Tapao’s US sector was used by stealth aircraft to transport foreign terrorism suspects to the United States and its Guantanamo base in Cuba.
Washington wants Bangkok to help it implement a program on aerial surveillance of the transportation of trade and military cargos en route from the Middle East to the Pacific Ocean. This is the main maritime transportation artery that China uses to develop its trade relations with many Asian and African countries, says Andrei Volodin of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Academy.
“The United States is dismayed about China’s ever-increasing geo-economic might which may well be transformed into a military and political clout, Volodin says. This is why Washington is trying to resuscitate its Cold War-era dominance in the Pacific, something that is designed to contain China. By doing so, the United States hopes to implement its strategy on containing communism on the whole,” Volodin says.
In a bid to expand its Pacific clout, the United States is also considering its return to the Cam Rahn Air Base in Vietnam and the Subic Bay Air Base in the Philippines. Experts say that US troops returning there is just a matter of time. Washington’s policy on building up its military presence in Asia is already bringing its first results, something that analysts say is almost certain to prod China to respond in kind. Given many regional countries’ dependence on China, Beijing will try to prevent these countries from cooperating with Washington, pundits say, referring to China’s drive to uphold its strategic interests.