Page 2 of 2 Thai massage for China's military muscle
By Ian Storey
and Chinese vessels escorting United Nations-chartered ships on a humanitarian
mission. Similar exercises had been conducted with the Pakistani Navy in
October 2003 and the Indian Navy in November 2003, but this was the first such
exercise between the PLAN and a Southeast Asian navy.
In July 2005, as the two countries celebrated 30 years of diplomatic relations,
Prime Minister Thaksin and Premier Wen Jiabao agreed to negotiate a roadmap to
enhance bilateral relations: the Joint Action Plan on Thailand-China Strategic
Cooperation. Thaksin's ouster by the Thai military on September
19, 2006, temporarily put those negotiations on hold.
However, while Thaksin's downfall was something of a setback for China - the
Thai leader had proved to be a valuable ally on a range of issues - the Chinese
government seized on the coup as an opportunity to demonstrate to the Thai
elite that the PRC was, once again, a steadfast friend in times of crisis, as
it had during the 1973 oil shock crisis, when China offered crude oil sales to
Bangkok at below-market "friendship prices", the 1980s Cambodian crisis, and
the 1997 Asian financial crisis, when the PRC contributed $1 billion in rescue
funds to Thailand.
While the United States publicly criticized the overthrow of Thaksin's
democratically elected government and suspended $24 million in military aid,
China declared the coup to be Thailand 's internal affair. In February 2007,
during a trip to Beijing by coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratklin, Beijing
offered up $49 million in military credits, double the amount suspended by
Washington . Negotiations on the Joint Action Plan also resumed.
The long-awaited plan was formally signed on May 28, 2007, in Beijing and
overseen by Thaksin's military-appointed successor, former army commander and
retired General Surayud Chulanont. The 12-page document outlines bilateral
cooperation in 15 areas over the 2007-2011 period . One part of the
agreement addresses military cooperation, calling on the two sides to maintain
military dialogue and exchange visits, conduct combined military exercises
focused on countering non-traditional security threats, and promote further
cooperation in the fields of military training, logistics, personnel training,
academic exchanges, defense consultation, mutual observance of military
exercises, disaster relief and rescue, and the defense industry.
Another is devoted to security cooperation and recommends enhancing cooperation
in the following areas of non-traditional security: counter- and
anti-terrorism; trafficking in illegal narcotics, people, and arms; money
laundering, cyber and financial crime; and piracy at sea. To that end, it
proposes the regular exchange of officials and experts, capacity building
through training and study visits, and the convening of a Thailand-China Joint
Working Group on Non-traditional Security Cooperation as a mechanism to
exchange views and share information among relevant law enforcement agencies.
Surayud moved quickly to implement some of the cooperative military activities
identified in the plan. In July 2007, "Strike 2007" took place, a 13-day
exercise in Guangzhou involving two teams of 15 Special Forces each from the
Thai and Chinese militaries. The exercise - the first between China and another
country - included marksmanship, hand-to-hand combat techniques, jungle warfare
training, and hostage rescue situations.
In September that same year, Surayud's cabinet approved the acquisition of
Chinese-made C-802 anti-ship missiles worth $48 million as part of the phasing
out of the C-801 missiles onboard RTN frigates, and likely paid for them using
the military credits offered by China earlier in the year. In talks with
visiting Chinese Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan, Surayud discussed the
possibility of joint weapons production. Details were not forthcoming at the
time, though there was strong speculation that future defense industry
cooperation would center on missile technology and production.
Since January, Prime Minister Samak has been preoccupied with his own
government's survival against a backdrop of rising political tensions and
frequent rumors of another military coup. As a consequence, no major
developments in Sino-Thai military relations occurred in the first half of
2008, though future cooperative activities were being planned under the rubric
of the Joint Action Plan and another joint military exercise is expected before
the end of the year.
The military-security relationship between China and Thailand experienced
consolidation and expansion under the Thaksin administration: annual defense
talks were initiated, acquisition agreements inked, and joint training
exercises conducted. Prime Minister Surayud promoted the relationship further,
overseeing the Joint Action Plan which is likely to serve as a template for
future agreements between China and other ASEAN countries.
Due to concerns over quality and after-sales service, Thailand is unlikely to
place any major orders with the PRC anytime soon - though joint research and
development leading to co-production of weapons systems seems likely. Thailand
today looks to diversify its sources of weapons supply to reduce reliance on
one country, as the recent order for 12 Gripen fighters from Sweden testifies.
Moreover, Sino-Thai military relations have a long way to go before they start
to rival that between the US and Thai militaries, who conduct more than 40
joint military exercises every year.
A sense of perspective is important: the May 2008 US-Thai Cobra Gold exercise
in which Japan, Singapore, and Indonesia also participated was conducted over a
13-day period and involved 12,000 military personnel, 14 naval ships and 96
combat aircraft; in contrast, "China-Thailand Friendship 2005" involved three
ships and lasted 3 hours and 20 minutes. All the same, the military-security
relationship between China and Thailand is on an unmistakable upward
1. ASEAN was established in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines,
Singapore, and Thailand.
2. Robert Karniol, "China unveils new patrol vessel for Thailand," Jane's
Defense Weekly, December 24, 2003.
3. Kavi Chongkittavorn, "Post-Coup Thailand in the eyes of the US and China",
The Nation, February 12, 2007.
4. Joint Action Plan on Thailand-China Strategic Cooperation between the
Government of the Kingdom of Thailand and the Government of the People's
Republic of China 2007-2011, May 28, 2007. Author copy.
Dr Ian Storey is a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies