Last week, Thailand’s defense minister was in Vietnam for a visit. The visit, which represented the first publicized high-level defense interaction between the two sides in 2019, spotlighted some of the ongoing activity within this aspect of the relationship between the two Southeast Asian states.
As I have noted before in these pages, the defense realm has long factored into wider cooperation between Vietnam and Thailand as part of their wider strategic partnership that was inaugurated back in 2013. Though their relationship had been characterized by animosity for much of the Cold War, it has gradually warmed since, including in the security domain. While defense ties between the two have covered a wide range of areas, from addressing transnational crimes to regulating fishermen within maritime boundaries, there have been efforts to further strengthen ties in specific areas as well, with steps such as the inauguration of a new defense policy dialogue in 2017 being among them.
Both sides had intimated in meetings toward the end of last year that this general trend was set to continue into 2019 as well. There were also additional elements of focus beyond that general continuity as well, with one notable one being that Thailand and Vietnam are holding the annually rotating ASEAN chairmanship in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
Last week, we saw an instance of efforts to further develop defense ties amid all of this with the visit of Thailand’s defense minister, Prawit Wongsuwan, to Vietnam. Prawit was in Vietnam for what was his first visit to an ASEAN member country since Thailand officially assumed this year’s ASEAN chairmanship for 2019 amid a busy year for Bangkok, which also includes holding an election after multiple delays to transition it back to democratic rule.
During a meeting held on January 23, both ministers reviewed the state of their existing defense collaboration and also explored potential areas to strengthen cooperation as well. According to Vietnam’s defense minister, focus was placed on areas including the exchange of delegations, cooperation between military corps and services, personnel training, and support for each other in multilateral fora. The two sides also discussed ongoing priorities, such as the repatriation of remains of Vietnamese troops in Thailand and boosting each other’s ASEAN chairmanships in 2019 and 2020.
Apart from that, Prawit’s trip included other interactions as well. An official reception was also held for him and his delegation at the headquarters of Vietnam’s defense ministry, which included not just Lich but also the deputy defense minister, the deputy chief of the General Staff, the deputy director of the General Department of Politics, and leaders of other agencies and units tied to the defense ministry.
Unsurprisingly, few additional details were publicly disclosed about the private deliberations between the countries and their officials. But as we see more visits and exchanges continue through the year and onto 2019 and 2020, the defense component of the Thailand-Vietnam relationship will continue to be an interesting area to watch.