Is the Thai military pivoting away from the West to China?
Thailand is eyeing Chinese weapons to modernize its military hardware, signalling a shift in the traditional Thai arms acquisition policy. Until recently, Bangkok has largely opted for defense items from the United States and its Western allies and partners.
The question is now whether this apparent change of tack by the Thai ruling military junta is dictated by diversification’s needs in arm purchases or by the geopolitical imperative of balancing the country’s relations with Washington and Beijing amid a mounting power play between them in East Asia. Some go further and speculate that behind Thailand’s growing interest in Chinese arms there is a strategic choice by Thai generals, who aim to pivot away from the US – an old ally of Bangkok’s – to Beijing.
General Chalermchai Sittisat, the Thai army commander in chief, upheld on January 2 that his country was likely to procure more Chinese weaponry. He then pointed out that Thailand had not switched preferences in defense and security procurements from the West to China.
In Chalermchai’s words, Thai armed forces look to Chinese arms and weapon systems because they are cheaper than the Western ones, an important factor at a time when Thailand is coping with budget constraints. Still, Bangkok is keen to develop a defence and weapons industry at home with the Chinese help.
Chalermchai underscored another important element. Since the May 2014 military coup masterminded by the current Thai prime minister, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the US has frozen military ties with the Thai government; Washington consequently imposed legal restrictions on arm sales to the southeast Asian country.
This American attitude has prompted Bangkok to turn to China for defense procurements. Last month, Thai and Chinese defense ministers talked about the possibility of jointly setting up military production facilities in Thailand, not least to manufacture small arms and drones. The Thai army inked a deal to buy 28 VT-4 tanks from Beijing last May, with the option to secure many more of them in the future. Furthermore, the Thai navy is expecting the cabinet’s green light to the purchase of three Chinese-built S26T submarines.
Bangkok’s recent arms deal with some European defense manufacturers and Russia would prop up the idea that the Thai government is actually carrying out a diversification policy in military acquisitions.
As part of its fleet build-up program launched in 2012, the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) ordered two additional Caracal multi-role helicopters from France-based aircraft maker Airbus in November; they should be delivered by 2019 and added to the existing fleet, which can be employed for combat search and rescue operations and troop transport missions – in the region, Indonesia and Malaysia are also equipped with the same model of helicopters.
The Thai government is also in talks with Sweden’s Saab Aeronautics for a further order of Gripen C/D fighters. The new aircrafts would join the fleet of 12 Gripen C/Ds that the RTAF has currently in service.
Similarly to China, Russia would be ready to assist Thailand in establishing national military production structures, according to media reports. In September 2016, then, Bangkok signed a contract with Moscow to get spare parts for Russian-built helicopters operated by the RTAF. In addition, last May, Thai generals had showed interest in buying a dozen of Russian-made Mil Mi-17 helicopters for troops transport operations.
Thailand’s focus on procurement of helicopters and production of small arms and drones may suggest the military junta wants to put armed containment of the Muslim Malay insurgency in the country’s deep south before any other defense and security need.
Speaking to Asia Times, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, put the issue in a somewhat different way: “The acquisition of more helicopters for combat duties and the creation of small arms and drones production facilities on Thai soil are not necessarily tied to the government’s handling of the southern insurgency”. Nonetheless, in his view, “there seems to be a greater realization that a more carrot-and-stick approach is necessary and the government appears willing to try more developmental and socio-economic approach without abandoning the use of force”.
Tactical need vs. strategic shift
Shunned by the US and, in part, by Europe, the Thai military junta is probably trying to win a stamp of political legitimacy from China. Bangkok is not a contender in the South China Sea territorial disputes, in which Beijing is the key claimant, and this facilitates the current embrace between the two Asian countries.
However, if Thailand really diversifies weapon suppliers for its core defense needs down the line and the US-Thai relationship is placed back on track, Bangkok’s cozying up to Beijing for arm procurements will boil down to a tactical necessity rather than a planned strategic shift
An indication in this regard will come from the Thai military’s pick for its new air defense radar system, with Japan reportedly proposing its Mitsubishi Electric’s fixed-position FSP-3 radar, and Washington’s posturing toward the “quasi-civilian” government that should take the country’s helm after the general elections set for later this year.