Thai-Sino military embrace

Bilateral armed forces cooperation gets a lift during visit by Chinese defence minister.

With mounting pressure from Washington, the military government of General Prayut Chan-o-cha decided yesterday to enhance military ties with China, expanding joint military exercises and boosting cooperation in the defence industry to increasing intelligence sharing and fighting transnational crime.

The agreement came yesterday during a three-day visit by China's Defence Minister General Chang Wanquan.

The opening ceremony of the 34th annual Thai-US Cobra Gold military exercise will be held on Monday.

At this year's Cobra Gold, the Asia-Pacific's largest annual multinational military exercise, Chinese military officers will take part for the first time.

The exercise is being held despite tension between Thailand and the US although it has been scaled down to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Chang yesterday spoke with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan in separate meetings. The Chinese defence minister met Prayut at Government House after having met Prawit at the Defence Ministry.

The prime minister told the Chinese defence minister that there would be increased cooperation between the two countries in the defence industry in terms of research and development, government spokesman Yongyuth Mayalarp said. "He wants China to give Thailand know-how in this area.

"The prime minister also requested that joint military exercises between the three armed forces of the two countries become a reality soon," the spokesman said.

However, there was no discussion about Thailand's purchase of military hardware and weapons from China, Yongyuth said, adding that Thailand had bought a number of Chinese-made weapons in the past.

The Chinese and Thai armed forces have held regular joint military training exercises since 2010 under the codename "Strike".

During his meeting with Prawit, Chang said China had a good understanding about the situation in Thailand and was aware there had been complex changes in the Kingdom over the past several years, Defence Ministry spokesman Colonel Kongcheep Tantrawanit said.

"China respects Thailand's way of solving its internal affairs and will not interfere," the spokesman quoted the Chinese defence minister as saying.

The Chinese side suggested that the military exercises between the two states be expanded over the next five years to cover all armies, including the marines, the spokesman said. Thailand asked for closer cooperation in intelligence sharing and fighting of transnational crimes such as the narcotics trade and human trafficking, he added.

The prime minister thanked China for its understanding of the Thai political situation, the spokesman said. Prayut also congratulated him over the 40th anniversary of ties between Thailand and China.

After the meeting Prawit said: "China has agreed to help Thailand boost national defence and advise on technology to increase Thailand's national security. China will not intervene in Thailand's politics but will give political support and help maintain relationships at all levels"

The Thai defence minister said both countries agreed to increase joint military drills. "We agreed to increase joint military exercises between Thailand's air force and China's air force and to increase overall military cooperation over the next three to five years," he said.

Meanwhile, a US State Department official has warned that the US would not fully reactivate its military alliance with Thailand as long as the junta refuses to restore democracy, AFP reported yesterday.

"There has to be a full restoration both of the institutions of governance and justice as well as the full restoration of a duly democratically elected civilian government," the official told journalists in Washington.

State Department spokesperson Marie Harf explained that Washington made the comment as it has seen slowness in the restoration of democracy in Thailand.

"So obviously, we believe this needs to happen as quickly as possible, and we'll keep pressing that with them," he said.

Prime Minister Prayut said in his weekly national TV address last night that he had worked to the best of his ability to maintain ties with all the countries that had diplomatic relationships with Thailand.

"I regard those countries as long-time allies, and not enemies. We may have problems today but in the future we still have to be good with one another. There is still trade and investment between the countries. Politics is another matter," he said during the programme "Returning Happiness to People in the Country".