Thailand and the Asian Pivot


2012-12-14 by Richard Weitz

On November 15, 2012, U.S. Defense Secretary Panetta signed a joint vision statement with Thailand’s Defense Minister Sukampol Suwannathat, affirming and renewing the Thai-U.S. military partnership.

The joint vision statement highlight four areas of future bilateral defense cooperation: regional security in Southeast Asia; supporting stability in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond; expanding bilateral and multilateral interoperability and readiness; and bilateral relationship building, coordination, and collaboration at all levels.

Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta and Thai Minister of Defense, Sukampol Suwannathat, sign a joint vision statement in Bangkok, Thailand, Nov 15, 2012. DoD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo 

Panetta emphasized the U.S. willingness to help develop and modernize Thailand’s military.

Thailand has remained the longest and currently sole formal ally of the United States in Indochina.

The 1954 Manila Pact of the former Southeast Asia Treaty Organization and the 1962 Thanat-Rusk communiqué provide the basis of the formal U.S.-Thailand alliance. Thailand was a solid anti-Communist ally of the United States throughout the Cold War and backed the U.S. war efforts in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam by providing basing rights and covert support to the Laotian anticommunists. In return, Bangkok received training, economic aid and large amounts of military equipment, totaling $2 billion for the period covering 1950 to 1987. Thailand also supported U.S. military interventions in the Korean War and the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Thailand further strengthened its partnership with the United States by contributing heavily to the War on Terrorism after the 9/11 attacks.

Bilateral intelligence cooperation reportedly increased markedly with the establishment of the Counter Terrorism Intelligence Center in 2001. The facility provides a forum for personnel from the U.S. Intelligence Community to work closely with their Thai counterparts.  Although Thailand remained officially neutral during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Thailand contributed to the reconstruction efforts in Iraq by dispatching more than 450 troops, including medics and engineers. In 2003, President George W. Bush designated Thailand as a “major non-NATO ally,” a status that allows greater access to U.S. foreign aid and military assistance, including credit guarantees for major weapons purchases.

Training opportunities for U.S. forces in Thailand are frequent.

Thai and U.S. forces have recently conducted an average of more than 40 joint military exercises a year, including the annual “Cobra Gold” military exercise, the largest U.S. “show of force” in Indochina. These drills started in 1982 and now involve the Royal Thai Army (RTA), Royal Thai Navy (RTN), Royal Thai Naval Marines Corp (RTNMC), the USN, the USMC and the U.S. Army. Cobra Gold has also expanded into a multilateral exercise that includes other Thai-U.S. allies, including Singapore, Japan, the Philippines, and Indonesia.

Additional That-U.S. exercises include the CARAT (Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training) naval exercises and Cope Tiger, a drill involving both countries air forces.

The United States still provides Thailand with important inventory; the RTAF has purchased sixty F-16 fighters, 12 C-130 medium transport aircraft and thirty F-5 fighters. The twelve Swedish Saab Gripen fighters Thailand recently acquired have 33% U.S. components, including General Electric F414 turbofan engines and AIM-120 missiles.

The Thai military has an extensive resume of peacekeeping missions that include the International Force for East Timor 1999-2002 and the Multinational Force in Iraq 2003-2004.

The United States has also assisted Thailand with the ongoing Southern Insurgency against Pattani Malay rebels through intelligence sharing and the provision of $30 million in aid to build civic institutions and organizations in Pattani, Yala and Narathiwatt Provinces. The USAF currently benefits from being able to stage B-52 and B-1B bombers through U-Tapao Royal Thai Navy Airfield, which is a convenient refueling and rest stop for USAF aircrews.

Thailand also maintains close relations with China and is currently considered by some as a key arena of competition between China and the United States for influence in Southeast Asia.

Despite the PRC’s support for a Communist insurgency during the 1960s and 1970s, China and Thailand found mutual ground in opposing Vietnamese influence in Cambodia and Laos during the 1980s, with China providing tanks, rockets and artillery to Thailand at “friendship prices,” more for diplomatic advantage than to further Thailand’ s military capabilities.

Bilateral military ties have since developed to an extent that Ian Storey, an Asian military specialist and researcher with Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, argues that that only Myanmar-China have a closer regional military relationship.

China is a major supplier of weapons, technical support, and training to the Royal Thai Armed Forces.

Thai arms purchases from China include the licensed production of 300mm WS-1B rocket artillery; which have a range of 160km. The WS-1B is a theater-level system capable of neutralizing mechanized and infantry formations, such as Thailand might face from Burma or Vietnam.

Of the three Thai military services, the Royal Thai Navy has sourced the highest proportion of its equipment and training from China.

The mainstays of the RTN are two Phuttahayok Chulalok (ex-USN Knox class) guided missile frigates, four Chao Phraya FFGs and two Naresuan FFGs: the latter two classes are built in China and based on the hull of the 053 Jianghu frigate class. The RTN has become a repeat buyer Chinese warships; in 2007 and 2008 the Pattani class Offshore Patrol Vessels entered Thai service. Despite experiencing quality control deficiencies with the 1990 delivery of the Chao Phraya frigates, the RTN has found that Chinese shipyards like China State Shipbuilding Corporation’s Jiangnan Yard are low cost and capable contractors.

Thailand is purchasing the 108km range J-802A anti-ship missile to replace the older YJ-82 missiles on the Pattani and Chao Phraya warships. China is also bidding for a contract to provide the RTN with three conventional submarines to match recent submarine acquisitions by Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam.

The PLAN’s Marine Corps conducted a three week, joint anti-terrorist exercise with the Thai Marine Corps from October 26 to November 14 2010 at Sattahip, despite concerns about the role of the PLANMC in potential regional conflicts. The PLA and RTA have also conducted counterterrorism exercises in 2007, 2008 and 2010 in Guangdong Province, China, Chang Mai Province, Thailand and in Guilin, China.

China naval cruise combat training.  China and Thailand, Marine Corps joint training

Thailand’s primary security concerns are the Muslim-led insurgency in its southern provinces, the spillover of instability and ethnic violence in Burma, and the strong Vietnamese influence in Cambodia and Laos. Engaging both China and the United States gives Thailand favorable relationships with two great powers whose capabilities complement each other to stabilize the regional situation around Thailand in addition to economic opportunities. Thailand’s economy depends heavily on foreign trade and investment.

Since Thailand acceded to the World Trade Organization in 2001, mutual investments have boomed.

Thai companies are strong backers of trade agreements with China. Despite the period of democratization starting after General Suchinda Krapayoon’s ouster in 1992, a subsequent period of parliamentary democracy that lasted until the 2006 coup, and then another political crisis and government change in 2008, Thailand’s relationships with both Washington and Beijing have remained remarkably balanced. Throughout the years, Thailand and China signed many cooperation agreements on trade, science and technology, tourism, civil aviation, sea transportation, and on other topics. Thailand is China’s 13th largest trading partner and ranks third among China’s trading partners within the ASEAN countries.

Nonetheless, the United States remains one of Thailand’s largest export markets and relations with the United States are central to Thailand’s outward-looking economic strategy.

Thai-U.S. bilateral trade in 2009 amounted to $26 billion, with Thailand exporting $19 billion to earn a $12 billion surplus. In addition to Thailand’s position as a leading global export of gypsum, shrimp and rice, Thai exports to the United States include computer accessories, peripherals, telecommunications equipment and semiconductors. The 2010 floods in Thailand led to a surge in the price of hard disks in U.S. markets.

Yet, democracy and human rights problems have impeded Thailand-U.S. ties. For many years, Thailand was seen as a model of stable democracy in Southeast Asia. Despite past differences on Burma policy and human rights issues, shared economic and security interests provided a solid basis for U.S.-Thai cooperation.

However, the September 2006 coup that overthrew Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra strained Thai-U.S. relations. The United States suspended $24 million of military assistance and suspended negotiations on a proposed bilateral free trade agreement. Since then, Thai politics have been dominated by rivalries between populist forces led by Thaksin and his opponents. Mass movements supporting and opposing Thaksin have staged vigorous demonstrations. One set of protests spilled over into riots in Bangkok and other cities in May 2010, causing the worst street violence in Thailand in decades.

Besides the still stalled free trade agreement, disagreements over intellectual property protection have also strained Thai-U.S. economic ties. In 2007, the U.S. Trade Representative Office’s put Thailand on its “priority watch list” because the Thai government allowed for the compulsory licensing for the manufacture and distribution of generic versions of medical drugs of which U.S. pharmaceutical companies hold patents.

A more recent source of tension was how a Thai court initially refused to hand over Viktor Bout to U.S custody. Bout was an alleged Russian arms dealer who had been caught in a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency sting operation conducted in Bangkok.

The judicial proceedings dragged on for months and the Thai government, under severe pressure from the Russian government, claimed that Bout was exempt from the extradition treaty between the two countries. It was only in November 2010 that Thailand released Bout to U.S. authorities, who tried him for selling weapons to the Colombian FARC terrorist organization.