Thailand woos China as it rebalances foreign ties

Thailand woos China as it rebalances foreign ties
Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan (left) and General Prawit Wongsuwan reviewing a guard of honour on Wednesday. More joint military exercises are expected, and possibly a deal for more weapons.

GENERAL Prawit Wongsuwan, the Thai military junta's deputy prime minister and defence minister, is visiting China - and is expected to return with agreements on more joint military exercises, and possibly a deal for more weapons.

The growing defence links come as Thailand's relationship with the United States sours over the junta's coup d'etat in May last year. In contrast, historically layered ties with China are rapidly cementing.

"This year, for the first time, we will have joint exercises with the Chinese air force, and I hope Mr Prawit will finalise a plan to exercise with Chinese marines in Thailand next year," Chulalongkorn University professor Panitan Wattanayagorn, an adviser to Gen Prawit, told a small audience of mainly foreign media and diplomats on Wednesday at a discussion on Sino-Thai relations.

He noted: "It is not only with the Chinese. With the Russians and the Indians, it is moving on the same path."

With last year's coup causing a chill with Thailand's oldest ally, the US, as well as the European Union, this is all part of a "rebalancing" of the country's foreign ties, analysts say.

On Wednesday in Bangkok, Russia Premier Dmitri Medvedev got a warm welcome from Thai PM Prayut Chan-o-cha.

Indian national security adviser Ajit Doval was here last week, and said after meeting Gen Prawit that Thai leaders saw India as a "success story".

"The overall kinetics were very positive," Mr Doval told Indian media. "We discussed... defence production, keeping sea lanes safe, piracy, human trafficking and terrorism."

Analysts expect the special security relationship with the US to continue. Thailand is a non-Nato ally of Washington.

Still, in geopolitical terms, the alliance was deeply embedded in the Cold War era, when the US helped Thailand fend off Communist plans to overthrow the monarchy and when US forces used Thai bases for their war in Vietnam.

Today, the international context has changed, said Prof Thitinan Pongsudhirak, the director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.

Speaking at the same event on Wednesday, at the Foreign Correspondents' Club, he said: "We are seeing tectonic shifts, and Thailand is part of it."

Any government in Thailand must "cosy up" to China, he said. "China is the game in the region; it is the main locomotive for regional growth and development. There is no avoiding China."

However, he added: "It is not really in the Thai DNA to be very close to any one side."

Prof Panitan insisted that Thailand's rebalancing would not be at the expense of the alliance with the US.

"Thailand in this strategic competitive environment is more neutral than many countries," he said. Still, he noted, one aspect of the military being in power was that it had sole control over "rebalancing" relations with major powers.

And while Thailand needs the US to keep stability and peace in the region, "we cannot stand still", he said. "China offers a lot more in many areas, including defence."

Among other things on Thailand's arms shopping list, reports say, are two submarines. It also wants a partner to upgrade its naval base at Sattahip, and some reports suggest China is interested.

nirmal@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Apr 10, 2015.
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