Page 1 of 2 Thai massage for China's military muscle
By Ian Storey
Last week, Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej was in China for a four-day
visit, his first since taking office after last December's elections. Samak,
who is concurrently defense minister, met with Chinese Defense Minister Liang
Guanglie and the two sides agreed to strengthen bilateral military ties.
Although Thailand has in recent years been wracked by political uncertainty,
this has not impaired the close relationship between Bangkok and Beijing.
Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of the September 2006 coup, the People's
Republic of China, or PRC, moved to embrace the new military government while
ally, the United States, looked on disapprovingly at the regression of Thai
As with other countries in Southeast Asia, Thailand seeks to balance the
interests and influence of America and China. A central element of Bangkok's
hedging strategy is to keep its military alliance with the US well lubricated,
while at the same time expanding defense ties with China. Given the cozy
relationship that has developed between Thailand and China over the past few
decades, it is unsurprising that military-security links are among China's most
well-developed in the region - second only to Myanmar, China's quasi-ally - and
the Thai kingdom has chalked up some impressive firsts in the arena of
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-China defense ties, including a
groundbreaking agreement with Beijing in 2007 that outlined the parameters of
Military cooperation between Thailand and China goes back further for China
than with any other founding ASEAN member , and was catalyzed by Vietnam's
December 1978 invasion of Cambodia. Bangkok and Beijing quickly cast off two
decades of hostility and entered a strategic alignment designed to curb
Vietnamese expansionism. Thailand became a conduit for Chinese-supplied
military equipment to the anti-Vietnamese Khmer Rouge guerillas across the
border in occupied Cambodia, and while China stopped short of providing
Thailand with a defense guarantee, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) was used
to exert military pressure on Hanoi from the Chinese side of the border when
Vietnamese troops marched near Thai territory.
As a means to bolster the capabilities of the Thai armed forces, and also to
increase its commercial arms sales in the region, Beijing furnished Bangkok
with weaponry at no cost, or at greatly reduced friendship prices, and with
very generous repayment terms. The first shipment of Chinese weapons, artillery
pieces and ammunition arrived gratis in Thailand in 1985. In 1987, the Kingdom
became the first ASEAN country to buy weapons from the PRC: 50-60 tanks, 400
armored personnel carriers (APCs), and anti-aircraft guns.
Two years later the defense relationship was raised a notch higher when the
Thai government placed an order for four Jianghu-class frigates (named the Chao
Praya, Bangpakorn, Kraburi, and Saiburi) and two enlarged versions of the same
class (Naresuan and Taksin) which were delivered in the early 1990s and still
form the backbone of the Royal Thai Navy (RTA).
However, Thai purchases of Chinese military equipment during the 1980s was as
much for political reasons as military ones, and throughout this period Bangkok
continued to rely on the US for its most technologically sophisticated
platforms, such as the F-16 fighter jet. Moreover, the Thai military was far
from impressed with the poor quality of Chinese-made equipment, and while some
of it was employed along the Thai-Cambodian border, much it was reserved for
training purposes or simply warehoused and left to rust. Bangkok was also
disappointed that Chinese weapons sales had not included technology transfers.
The Paris Peace Accords of 1991 marked the resolution of the Cambodian crisis
and at a single stroke removed the rationale for the Sino-Thai security
alignment. During the 1990s the two countries focused on maximizing economic
synergies while military-to-military ties languished, though the two sides
continued to exchange high-level military delegations.
Tightening ties under Thaksin
It was not until prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra took office in February 2001
that the bilateral military relationship was re-energized and expanded. This
was partly a result of the prime minister's desire to bolster relations with
the PRC across the board, but also owed a great deal to the personal interests
of General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, who concurrently served as a deputy prime
minister and defense minister under Thaksin.
As director of operations, deputy commander and then commander of the Royal
Thai Army (RTA) during the 1980s, Chavalit was Thailand 's point man with the
PLA over Cambodia, and forged close personal ties with the Chinese leadership
and military top brass. In particular, Chavalit developed a lasting friendship
with General Chi Haotian, Chinese defense minister from 1993 to 2003 and vice
chairman of the Central Military Commission. It was the personal chemistry
between Chavalit and Chi that helped kick-start Sino-Thai military ties in the
Prior to 2001, bilateral defense ties had been ad hoc; a framework to discuss
military-security issues and map out future cooperation was lacking. In June
2001, the Bangkok Post reported that Chi had accepted Chavalit's proposal to
hold annual defense talks to remedy that deficiency. The first defense meeting
was held in December 2001, and follow-up meetings have been held every year
According to press reports, at the first meeting the two sides discussed
regional and international security issues and cooperation between the two
countries' armed forces. The annual defense talks have served as an essential
mechanism to advance bilateral military cooperation in four main areas since
2001: first, observance of each other's military exercises; second, a
resumption of Chinese arms sales to Thailand ; third, educational exchanges;
and fourth, combined training and exercises.
With regard to the first area, PLA observers have attended the annual US-Thai
Cobra Gold military exercises - the largest joint military exercise in Asia -
since 2002, except for 2004. And since 2003, Thai military officers, along with
those from other countries, have observed several large PLA exercises,
including "Northern Sword" in Inner Mongolia in August 2003 and September 2005,
and "Iron Fist" in Henan province in September 2004.
With Chavalit as defense minister, Thailand once again turned to the PRC as a
source of arms. In 2001, the Thai defense ministry agreed to buy
Chinese-manufactured rocket-propelled grenade launchers and in December 2002
placed a $98 million order for two Thai-designed offshore patrol vessels (OPVs)
. The two vessels - Pattani and Narathiwat - were delivered in late 2005.
However, further offers by China to sell a range of defense equipment to
Thailand failed to materialize.
This included a follow-on order for two OPVs and an unspecified number of main
battle tanks, while a proposed barter exchange deal involving 66,000 tons of
dried Thai Longan fruit for Chinese-made APCs also fell through. (Instead
Thailand purchased APCs from South Africa.) Resistance from the Thai military
on quality grounds was one reason for the failure to secure further orders,
while Chi's retirement in 2003 and Chavalit's exit from politics in 2005 were
other important factors.
The third area of cooperation has been education. The number of Thai military
officers attending educational courses at the National Defense University in
Beijing has increased since 2001, as has the number of PLA officers studying at
Thai military academies. The purpose of these courses is to enhance the
understanding of each other's strategic perspectives, and to improve language
skills for future cooperative activities.
The fourth area is combined training and exercises. In late 2005, milestones
were reached in both areas. In September the PLA began a three-month landmine
clearance training program for the RTA along the Thai-Cambodian border, the
first time the Chinese military had extended this expertise to a Southeast
Asian country. In December the Thai and Chinese navies conducted their first
joint exercise. Codenamed "China-Thailand Friendship 2005," the exercise took
place in the Gulf of Thailand and featured the People's Liberation Army Navy's
(PLAN) guided-missile destroyer Shenzhen and supply ship Weishanhu, as well as
the RTN frigate Chao Praya.
The exercise simulated a rescue mission at sea followed by Thai