By Ernie Bower and Alexandra Sander
As U.S. Defense Secretary Panetta turns north from Australia on his way to Thailand and Cambodia today, he should carefully consider the trends in China’s military to military relationship with Thailand. Developments reveal Chinese acumen and determination to expand security ties where they see opportunities created by perceived American missteps, China’s intent to use pages from the United States playbook for institutionalizing military engagement in Southeast Asia, and the development of a regional new-normal, namely ASEAN militaries seeking to balance relationships with a range of regional partners, including the United States and China.
The Sino-Thai military to military relationship has gained significant ground since the Asian financial crisis which first manifested itself in Bangkok in 1997. At the time, a fast growing China perceived an opportunity to expand its influence in Thailand and Southeast Asia when the United States was perceived to be less than fully understanding in backing International Monetary Fund (IMF) prescriptions for Thailand and other hard-hit Southeast Asian countries.
China set its sights on expanding its military influence with the country with the oldest alliance with the United States in Asia, Thailand. The effort is consistent with Chinese objectives to expand cooperation and influence with regional militaries in Southeast Asia. China’s goals in strengthening its security relationship with Thailand and the desire for increased military-to-military engagement are mutual. This move makes sense for Beijing; China’s economic growth is accompanied in the 21st century by a drive to modernize and build up the capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army. Expanding ties with a significant regional player like Thailand is a smart move for both countries.
China saw additional opportunities and openness from the Thai military after the ambiguous US diplomatic response to the 2006 coup that ousted then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Chinese military support and engagement has a near-term competitive advantage in such instances namely that is unburdened by foreign policy concerns and values such as human rights and democracy. As the United States focused on fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, China focused on building its relationships in Southeast Asia.
China has rapidly increased arm sales, training and joint exercises with Thailand since the late 1990’s. Expanding Sino-Thai military to military relations indicates Bangkok is looking for more opportunities to develop the Royal Thai Armed Forces and modernize its resources. Thailand looks to China for more affordable military technology, procured without the cumbersome U.S. review processes and without related governance and oversight requirements.
In addition to arms sales, China has begun to use techniques employed for years but the United States to institutional engagement such as expanding military training for Thai officers in China, comparable but not near equivalent to the United States International Military Education and Training (IMET). China has also developed a proactive joint training schedule. Experts report that there is a growing sense among the Thai military that the Chinese understand their needs better than the Americans do on a certain practical level. This has led to the sense among some that while American military colleagues are “our cousins,” Chinese counterparts are closer to “brothers.”
While China has often contentious relationships with some of its Southeast Asian neighbors, especially Vietnam and the Philippines, China and Thailand have a strong bilateral relationship due to their relatively benign history. In the 1970s, Bangkok sought a strategic alignment with Beijing to contain Vietnam’s influence in Cambodia. Following Vietnam’s withdrawal, the Sino-Thai relationship transitioned to one primarily based on trade and investment.
Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra sought to expand military engagement with China while he was in power: in 2001, Thailand was the first ASEAN member to establish annual defense and security talks with China and in 2005 the Royal Thai Armed Forces was the first Southeast Asian military to conduct combined exercises with the People’s Liberation Army. After the 2006 military coup ousting Thaksin from power, the United States suspended several military programs in Thailand and China took the opportunity to further expand its security relationship with Thailand.
China and Thailand have further increased their military ties in terms of exchanges and arms sales. China participated as an observer for the first time in the U.S.-Thai Cobra Gold military exercise in 2008, which includes a number of Asia Pacific militaries. China and Thailand have expanded the frequency and scope of bilateral military exercises and exchanges and current Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra has maintained this trend. Yingluck led a high-level delegation to Beijing in April 2012, during which the two countries signed a five-year Joint Action Plan on China-Thailand Strategic Cooperation.
As Mr. Panetta flies into Bangkok, he should be developing arguments to convince budget-cutting bureaucrats on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon to ensure the United States military remains a strong, committed and consistent partner. The United States cannot afford to take its security relationship with Thailand or other ASEAN countries for granted, but neither should it oppose China’s developing security relationships. Instead of challenging China in this arena, the United States should reinforce its engagement, continue to invest and continue to press China and other regional militaries to professionalize planning, publicize strategic white papers and engage in regional architecture such as the ASEAN Defense Minister Meeting Plus.
Regional militaries need and should have good relations with their Chinese counterparts. That is good for long term regional stability and peace, and therefore directly in the interests of the United States. In fact, opposing such cooperation would undercut US influence over the long term. Military engagement between states, as engagement in other areas, bolsters regional peace, security, and transparency between governments by reducing chances for miscalculation and miscues between militaries. The United States needs to ensure that it continues to play a leading role in these efforts.
Ernest Bower is senior adviser and Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies & codirector of the Pacific Partners Initiative at CSIS.