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US pressure on Thailand’s military Government to restore democracy has seen the Kingdom move closer to China on defence matters, undercutting the position of ASEAN allies who are protesting Chinese incursions into the South China Sea .

BANGKOK — With no civilian Government to act as a check, Thailand’s military is on a shopping spree, and the purchases being pursued by the Generals who seized political power two years ago are a stark indicator of the fraying relations between the United States and its oldest treaty ally and Cold War-era stalwart in the Asia-Pacific region.
Thailand has always diversified its arms procurement to some degree. That approach is in general alignment with the Kingdom’s strategy of trying to balance relations with big powers in its foreign policy.
Nonetheless, since the dawn of the Cold War nearly seven decades ago, Thailand has leaned more closely to the United States, supporting America in its conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, and depending largely on US-made hardware for its battle order. The two have been co-hosting the annual Cobra Gold military exercises for the last 35 years, and have had treaty relations since 1833.
In late May, however, the Thai Government, under Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, announced that the Army would buy 28 VT4 battle tanks from China for an estimated US$150 million, with plans to buy 153 more. It is recommending its Navy choose three Chinese Yuan-class submarines instead of the German models the Navy desired.
Army Chief, Gen. Teerachai Nakwanich, also announced intentions to buy 12 Russian-made Mi-17V5 transport helicopters instead of the American-made Chinooks it has long been using, and with another 20 to 30 helicopters purchases planned, he made it clear none would be US Blackhawks. The Air Force, meanwhile, chose South Korean-made fighter-training jets over American-made Textron AirLand Scorpions.
Ostensibly, the reasons are costs. Gen. Teerachai said straight out that US tanks and helicopters are too expensive. But the military has plenty of money of to play with.
“The country's defence spending this fiscal year is huge, accounting for 207.7 billion baht (US$5.8 billion), or 7.6 per cent of overall budget spending. The sum is a 7.3 per cent increase, or about 14.76 billion baht (US$415 million), on the 2015 fiscal year,” wrote Wassana Nanuam, military affairs correspondent for the Bangkok Post.
Others have cited the fact that the US is constrained by law from giving support to the Thai military because it seized power from a democratically-elected Government in May 2014. A total cutoff, however, has not taken place.
Tens of millions of dollars worth of arms were flowing into Thailand from the US for several months following the coup, and, in 2015, the US approved the sale of Seasparrow missiles to the Kingdom.
“It is consistent with US national interests to assist Thailand in developing and maintaining a strong and ready ship self-defence capability which will contribute to the military balance in the area,” the Defense Security Co-operation Agency told Congress at the time.
It is not clear if the Obama Administration or Congress would approve larger weapons sales to Thailand while the military holds power. But in light of the Obama Administration’s recent lifting of prohibitions on arms sales to Vietnam, a country with no democracy at all and a worse human rights record, the US might have given a green light in order to prevent its old ally from turning to the Chinese and the Russians.
However, the Thai Government has not made any request. The reason appears to be its displeasure over regular urging by the US for the Kingdom to hold elections as soon as possible to return to democracy.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has pledged that elections will be held in 2017, but in May threatened to stay on as ruler if rival domestic political factions don’t make peace. Add to this, frequent US criticism of Thailand’s human rights record, and in particular criticism of the use of the lese majeste law, and the reasons for the ire of the Government and right-wing Thais become clear.
Panitan Wattanayagorn, a security advisor to the Government, said: “Thailand’s co-operation with major powers has been updated and brought to the new era. This is significant as Thailand is increasingly enjoying more areas of activity with major countries.”
That includes stepped up defence co-operation with China. Thailand’s National Security Council and China’s intelligence agencies recently signed co-operation agreements to strengthen military contacts, education, technology and development — as well as bolstering joint efforts of the Expert Working Group for Counterterrorism. And the two countries are conducting joint military exercises.
But the deepening embrace of China, and to a lesser degree Russia, may not be in Thailand’s best interests or bring the returns it seeks.
In terms of arms purchases and battle order, over-diversification can be a bad thing. It means spare parts, supplies and support must be obtained from a wider variety of sources, complicating military logistics. Maintenance and training for soldiers and technicians becomes more complex. Overall, it is less efficient.
In the private sector, Thai Airways International encountered similar problems when it over-diversified its fleet, eventually contributing to losses, inefficiency and the need for a fleet rationalisation and sell-off.
The closer embrace also hasn’t been reciprocated by Chinese generosity. Beijing has been playing hard-ball on terms to help build high-speed train routes through Thailand that will link Yunnan province with Singapore – an infrastructure project that serves China’s interests more than Thailand’s and that carries a high price tag for this middle-income country.
Thailand needs the infrastructure more as a pump primer for its tepid economy – weak investment and exports are expected to keep growth at about 3.0 per cent this year, a low figure for the region – but the delay in reaching agreements and disbursing funds is constraining needed investment and economic expansion.
Lastly, with several nations in ASEAN experiencing serious tensions with China over the South China Sea — and seeking more US support — Thailand is moving in the opposite direction from its neighbours and regional allies, undercutting its position within the bloc.
Some Thai economists believe, however, that the rebalancing of relations will only go so far. Sompob Manarangsan, an economist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok and an expert on Thai-Chinese relations, told reporters that difficulties with the high-speed train agreements have caused the fervour for China to abate.
The Thai people prefer to be “well balanced among the superpowers”. “That’s very important for Thailand, economically, politically or for security, particularly for security,” Sompob said.
That may be true of the Thai people, but it remains to be seen if Thailand’s leaders will follow suit.