Asia Defense

Did Thailand Just Approve a New US Aircraft Basing Request?

The answer is more complex than it appears.

As I reported earlier this week, the United States had asked its ally Thailand for permission to use its airports as a temporary base for surveillance planes to assist in Southeast Asia’s ongoing migrant crisis (See: “Thailand Mulls New U.S. Aircraft Basing Request”).

As I noted in that piece, Thai foreign minister Tanasak Patimapragorn indicated that Thailand would be willing to consider the request provided some of its security and sovereignty concerns were addressed. In particular, Tanasak had mentioned that the Thai government would need some additional details – including the flight routes of U.S. aircraft – as well as an assurance that any U.S. mission would come under the supervision of Thai authorities.

On Friday, The Nation reported that Thailand has granted permission for Washington to fly over its sea territory – in the company of Thai planes – during search and rescue operations. Tanasak told reporters on the sidelines of a multinational meeting in Bangkok on the migrant crisis that Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan had already granted verbal permission and the message has been conveyed to the U.S. embassy.

He also said the approval was already being implemented, with U.S. aircraft flying together with the Thai air force over sea territory on such a mission on Friday morning. That kind of arrangement appears to satisfy Thailand’s need for clarity about U.S. flight routes as well as the assurance that American missions come under Thai supervision.

There is a catch, however. Crucially, Tanasak indicated that the approval did not include U.S. use of Phuket or U-Tapao as temporary bases for its aircraft. He noted that the aforementioned flight had taken off from a base in Malaysia, and that the request for the use of bases would be considered separately.

“The flight took off from a base in Malaysia, but we are not at a point where they can use any base,” Tanasak said. “If it becomes necessary to use Thai territory for their base, the request can be considered.”

Yet temporary basing was a key reason why such a U.S. proposal was broached in the first place. As I emphasized in my previous piece, earlier this month the Thai government had approved Washington’s request to station 16 transport and aerial refueling aircraft for three weeks at U-Tapao airport as part of an earthquake relief operation in Nepal. At least for now, this is not something Thailand wants to publicly permit in the case of Southeast Asia’s migrant crisis.