August has been a stormy month for nations in the Asia-Pacific. In addition to an extremely dangerous new normal in the Taiwan Strait and North Korea’s intensifying missile testing, the region has witnessed the revival and enlargement of joint combat exercises.
For the first time ever, forces from Australia, Japan, and Singapore participated in the U.S.- and Indonesian-led “Super” Garuda Shield drill from August 1 to 14. Almost simultaneously, the Pacific Dragon ballistic missile defense exercise between the U.S., Japan, and the previously reluctant South Korea came back to life after being stuck in the void for six years and even expanded to include the Australian and Canadian navies.
This week alone, there are two high-profile bilateral drills in action. The first is the Ulchi Freedom Shield between American and South Korean troops, which is anticipated to be considerably larger in scale and scope compared to previous years’ exercises, now that diplomacy with North Korea has gone downhill. The second is the Falcon Strike air exercise between the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), which is running from August 14 to 25 in northeastern Thailand near the border with Laos, following a two-year pandemic hiatus.
Much like the Ulchi Freedom Shield, this year’s Falcon Strike is the most advanced since its inception in 2015. As noted by China’s Global Times, never before has the PLAAF sent its JH-7AI fighter-bomber – designed to carry out strikes on ground targets from long distance – to such drills. Other assets deployed by the PLAAF include one Shaanxi KJ-500 early warning and control aircraft (AEW&C), and six Chengdu J-10 C/S fighters (if paired with JH-7AI bombers, the unit could achieve air superiority while launching ground attacks). Aircraft deployed by the RTAF, meanwhile, include one SAAB 340 AEW&C, three Alpha Jet light attack planes, and five Gripen fighters.
Both the Thai and Chinese sides insist that the 2022 Falcon Strike is a non-partisan combat training aimed at strengthening mutual trust and cooperation, and is defensive in nature. Thailand, as both a U.S. treaty ally and partner of China, further stresses that the drill has been planned long ahead of the renewed tensions in the waters around Taiwan.
Given the sensitivity of the timing, it would certainly have been ideal for Thailand to postpone or cancel the exercise. Thailand has adopted what The Diplomat’s editor-in-chief Shannon Tiezzi has called a “true neutral” position – not swinging in favor of either the U.S. or China and calling on all sides to exercise restraint – in response to the Taiwan crisis. Yet, by engaging in a military drill with the PLAAF so soon after taking a stance of neutrality, Thailand could be seen as sending indirect support to China – a classic case of “actions speak louder than words”
Adding to the perception that Thailand is coming under Chinese pressure is the latest development of the long-stalled Thai-Chinese submarine deal. Thailand is supposed to get its first S-26T Yuan-class submarine, equipped with German-made diesel engines, next year. But Germany has stopped supplying the necessary engines to the Chinese shipbuilder, resulting in delays and renegotiations between the Thai and Chinese militaries. Reportedly, the Thais are grudgingly considering China’s proposal to replace the missing German engines with Chinese-made ones.
Then, there is the RTAF’s F-35 procurement program, which needs American approval. The Falcon Strike, as a demonstration of Thailand’s close defense ties to China, will worsen or completely blow away Thailand’s already low chance of acquiring the F-35s. The RTAF excluded its American F-16 fighters from the drill with China, in large part to ease America’s fear of technology transfer, but this will do very little to assuage the U.S. government’s concerns. As has been the case with Indonesia, the U.S. will most likely say no to the F-35 sales and offer alternative models to Thailand.
Postponing or canceling the long-planned 2022 Falcon Strike, however, could send the wrong signals and potentially draw negative reactions from China. This would subsequently undermine Thailand’s complex engagement efforts to maintain a balanced position in the great power competition.
India, despite being a QUAD member in conflict with China, has managed to engage with China and Russia just fine (as underscored by joint Indian and Chinese participation in the upcoming Russian-led Vostok exercise). With this in mind, Thailand’s withdrawal from Falcon Strike would most likely have been interpreted by China as a sign of “abandonment” in favor of Washington.
China’s worries are not at all far-fetched. After all, Thailand has recently reaffirmed its alliance commitment to the U.S. and has expressed an interest in joining the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework proposed by the Biden administration – something that China essentially sees as a containment strategy. In contrast, the progress of the Thailand-China high-speed rail, which is part of the broader Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, has been painfully slow.
With the ultimate goal of maintaining a balance of power, choosing to go ahead with the 2022 Falcon Strike seems to be the least dangerous option for Thailand. While the drill will raise questions and surely complicate the RTAF’s F-35 procurement plan, the Thai-U.S. alliance, as well as the Thai-Chinese partnership, will be business as usual.