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Did China Just Boost Military Ties with Thailand?

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Did China Just Boost Military Ties with Thailand?

The symbolism of a recent meeting is clear, but the substance is less so.

Did China Just Boost Military Ties with Thailand?

From February 5-7, China’s Defense Minister Chang Wanquan embarked on a visit to Thailand aimed at boosting the Sino-Thai defense relationship.

The symbolism of the visit, which occurs days before the Cobra Gold exercises – the crown jewel of the U.S.-Thailand military relationship – is clear enough. True, there was always going to be the usual pomp and circumstance in Sino-Thai relations in 2015 given that it is the 40th anniversary of ties between the two sides. But as I noted in an earlier piece on Cobra Gold, the trip also comes amid deteriorating relations between the two allies following a recent public rebuke by the highest ranking U.S. envoy to visit Thailand since a coup last May. As has often occurred in the past, Beijing is happy to opportunistically coddle non-democratic rulers to boost ties while Washington fusses over rights issues, which complicate its dealings – even if, in this case, some crucial, quiet cooperation is still intact with its oldest Asian ally.

The ruling junta, for its part, has been going out of its way recently to show Washington and the world that there are other, less conscionable partners who are willing to do business with it without fretting about the legitimacy of its rule. “China will not intervene in Thailand’s politics but will give political support and help maintain relationships at all levels. This is China’s policy,” Thailand’s defense minister Prawit Wongsuwan said, as if to belabor the point.

Theater aside, the substance of Chang’s visit is much less clear – at least for now. Several of the proposals floated were either not entirely new or lacking the specifics inherent in more far-reaching agreements. For instance, following a meeting with Chang, Reuters reported that Prawit had said that the two countries had agreed to joint military exercises between their air forces and to expand “overall military cooperation” within the next three to five years.

In fact, these same ideas were broached last November during Prawit’s trip to Beijing, where both sides agreed to conduct a joint air force exercise and to incorporate all three armed forces in full-scale bilateral military drills, rather than holding individual, issue-specific smaller exercises between different services as in the past. When that was announced, some began sweating about a new era in Sino-Thai defense cooperation. But sources suggested even then that while baby steps like joint training sessions for pilots would take place, a robust joint aerial exercise – let alone full-scale drills across all services – was still years away. The visit offered few details as to what the timeline might be, and whether or not specific measures had actually been expedited.

According to The Bangkok Post, China also pledged to step up cooperation in research and technology and to give Thailand special prices on submarines, tanks and weapons. Thai government spokesman Yongtuth Mayalarp also reportedly said following the meeting that Thailand wanted Beijing’s support for research, development and technology transfer to boost its defense industry. While that seems promising on the surface, the devil is often in the details, especially when it comes to procurement.

Take submarines for instance. As I noted previously, despite lacking this capability since 1951, the Thai navy now appears serious about trying to procure a few submarines in the coming years, and China has been courting the ruling junta on this of late. But Beijing is hardly the only place Bangkok is looking to. Indeed, China will likely face tough competition from South Korea’s Chang Bogo Class submarine, which Thailand is seriously considering. Furthermore, Thailand’s decades-long attempts to acquire this capability, with botched prospective deals with several countries including Germany and South Korea due to reasons ranging from budgetary constraints to internal differences, suggests this is far from a sure-fire bet.

Chang also invited Prawit to attend a proposed informal defense ministers’ meeting with ASEAN countries in China this year. Chinese premier Li Keqiang had issued a similar invitation last year to all his Southeast Asian counterparts — a pretty clear sign that Beijing would like to emulate Washington’s hosting of ASEAN defense ministers in Hawaii, which occurred in April 2014, in some form. But when China initially floated the idea as part of a new strategy for ASEAN-China relations back in 2013, ASEAN reacted quite coolly to the idea then.

Of course, we could see advances in a few of these aspects of Sino-Thai defense ties – or at least a fleshing out of some of the proposed initiatives – further down the line. But given Thailand’s age-old reputation for balancing various powers, the low base that Bangkok and Beijing are building from, and the difficulties in operationalizing some cooperative endeavors, a focus on optics alone in defense visits like this is often of limited utility because there is often more – or perhaps less – than meets the eye.