BANGKOK: — Left unattended by the major Western powers following the May 22 coup, Thailand and China have quickly strengthened their relations – especially in longstanding defence cooperation.
During the brief visit to China last week of Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister General Pravit Wongsuwan, Thailand and China agreed to conduct a joint air force exercise for the first time within a year – and all three armed forces will now participate in full-scale bilateral military drills.
The new collaboration can pose a direct challenge to the all-weather US-dominated security exercises held regularly with Thailand over the past five decades. A new pattern China-led security network, which anchors on Thai-China friendship, could loop in neighbouring countries such as Laos, Cambodia and possibly Myanmar in the near future.
Two years ago, China successfully created an international force, the first of its kind, to provide security protection along the Mekong River after 13 Chinese passengers were killed inside a boat sailing inside Thai territory. China’s collaboration with the security units from Myanmar, Laos and Thailand is still a work in progress due to different practices and norms.
Although Thailand and China declared their “comprehensive strategic partnership” in 2012, their joint military drills are still at a nascent stage. With the participation of air forces, the prospect of Thai-China defence cooperation would increase and serve as a pivot for China’s effort to build up new Asian security architecture as advocated by President Xi Jingping.
In May, he called for the establishment of Asian security by Asian countries that can solve Asian problems.
Since the start of the Sino-Thai Defense and Security Consultation in 2001, defence cooperation has gradually expanded in scope and areas of cooperation, including joint development and technological transfers.
The most notable were a series of Thai-China special force training exercises with the code name “Strike” which ran from 2007-2013. The Thai and Chinese navies also held two anti-terrorism exercises under the code name “Blue Strike.” The first in 2010 was staged in Chon Buri, Rayong and Chanthaburi.
However, it was the second in 2012, conducted inside Guangdong province in the waters off Shanwei in Zhanjiang, that rattled US strategists due to the large number of marine corps involved, totalling 500, with highly classified tactics and techniques used during training. Both sides still needed to reconcile different military doctrines and improve their interoperability.
During Pravit’s visit, Thailand and China agreed to expand the four-year joint development of multiple rocket launchers known as DTI-1G, which ends in 2015. Other new cooperation including space, information and communications technology and new weapons procurement to be spelled out during next week’s visit of Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha.
At the working level, there were discussions on how to make the Thai-China ties more strategic with many proposals including the two plus two (foreign affairs and defence) ministerial meeting.
To outsiders, the increased intimacy between Thailand and China in the post-coup was due to two major reasons.
First, the Chinese leader’s understanding and sympathy towards Thailand’s political vulnerability and his willingness to adopt “business as usual” with Thailand. Second, the country’s lack of a viable option to jump start ties with Western countries, which condemned the coup, continues to favour its ties with China.
Truth be told, after the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1975, regional crisis such as the Cambodian conflict (1979-1992) and the Asian financial crisis (1997), as well as Thai political quagmire, have played important roles in boosting Thai-China relations. In the truest sense of the word, Beijing has proved it has been a virtual ally of Thailand.
However, from within, there has been some soul-searching among top military leaders on any move to approach the two prominent powers – China and the US – that would shape the future strategic landscape of Asia and Asean.
The alliance with the US since 1954, which has been the country’s biggest security asset, no longer holds the same value as in the past. After the coup, Thailand has become more recalcitrant towards the US. In the past, it has responded to US strategic requirements.
However, from the Thai point of view, the lack of understanding and “hurtful” American responses, especially those coming from their diplomats stationed here, towards the internal situation was a barometer of Washington’s disinterest and insensitivity.
Whether by default or design, China’s pro-active diplomacy and security overtures over medium and long-term will be a potent force to weaken the US-led alliance system in the region, directly impacting the Thai-US military pact.
By mid-November, all top Thai military coup leaders would have visited China – while the US continues to ban high-level contacts for both military and civilians. It will remain until a new election. However, the Asia-Pacific region’s largest Thai-US military exercise, Cobra Gold, will proceed as planned with a scaling down of military personnel.
At the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders Meeting, Prayut has scheduled a bilateral meeting with President Xi Jinping.
What emerged from the meeting would be indicators of future Thai-China pathways – essentially utilising Thailand as a springboard for the integration of Southwest China to mainland Southeast Asia through physical connectivity.
Xi wants to showcase the Sino-Thai ties that are “equitable”, “mutually beneficial” and “win-win” to win over other Asean countries.
For decades, China has been eager to construct physical links, both road and railway, with its underdeveloped southwest region to mainland Southeast Asia. River and road links are now common transportation linking the two regions.
For the immediate future, China wants to build railways connecting Yunnan through Vientiane and then across the Mekong River to Nong Khai, leading to Nakhon Ratchasima and then to Laem Chabang deep sea port in eastern Thailand. Other rail-construction projects were discussed in past years, but so far there has been no concrete agreement on construction as more countries would have to get involved.
In retrospect, political turmoil and the rice-related scandal during the Yingluck administration seriously affected China’s long-standing interest on infrastructure projects amid Thailand’s growing unpredictability.
Under the Thaksin administration, Beijing was confident the railway projects including other infrastructure plans would go through, mainly due to Thaksin’s political longevity. That proved not to be the case. After the coup in 2006, China has painstakingly built up ties with subsequent Thai governments focusing once again on infrastructure projects.
Given the unique circumstance Thailand is in today and China’s enthusiasm for infrastructural deals and trade-offs, the Thai-China ties are destined to move to a new level of strategic significance, whatever the unintended consequences might be.