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International Relations

Thailand mends US military ties after post-coup tilt to China

Most probable new Thai army chief staunchly pro-American

Thai and the U.S. soldiers at the opening of an annual joint military exercise, Cobra Gold, in February 2018.    © AP

BANGKOK -- Gen. Apirat Kongsompong, the officer tipped to become Thailand's next army chief, is poised to turn a fresh page in Thai-U.S. military relations.

Apirat's long ties with the U.S. make him an ally, say Western diplomats, who believe bonds between the two countries are on the mend after serious stress in the wake of a coup in 2014.

Despite the evident warming toward the U.S., the coup-installed government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is expected to also continue seeking defense cooperation with China, which stepped up arms supplies after the coup.

The swing toward China in 2014 was led by Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, who is also defense minister, and backed by a pro-China lobby of retired generals.

Apirat is believed to top the list of generals being reviewed by the Defense Council ahead of the annual military reshuffle that will be made public in September after receiving royal assent.

As deputy army chief, Apirat has been handling logistics, ordnance, and procurement. He oversaw a recent military deal with the U.S. worth $261 million that included Black Hawk helicopters. His impending term as army chief is expected to contain the pro-China lobby in the Thai military led by Prawit.

"Apirat is a regular visitor to the U.S.," a senior Thai military officer told the Nikkei Asian Review. "He has friends in the U.S. defense establishment because of his military graduate studies there, and because of ties developed by his father." Apirat's father was Gen. Sunthorn Kongsompong, the supreme commander in 1991 and chairman of the junta that staged a coup that year.

The warming of relations with the U.S. is not expected to freeze China out. At the start of this year, the Thai military expressed interest in increasing its order of Chinese VT-4 battle tanks to 49. More information is also expected soon about plans for a groundbreaking Thai-Chinese weapons factory. Sketchy reports of the proposed plant appeared in the local media in June following a visit by senior officers to Beijing. Thai military sources say possible locations are in northeastern Thailand or along the Eastern Seaboard of the Gulf of Thailand.

Gen. Apirat Kongsompong, left, accompanies Gen. Robert B. Brown, the U.S. Army Pacific commander, during an inspection of the 31st Infantry Regiment, the King's Guard, in June 2017.   © Reuters

"The Chinese want to set up the facility in Thailand to make their weapons for Chinese forward forces who would be in the region," Paul Chambers, an expert on Thai national security issues at Naresuan University in northern Thailand, told Nikkei.

Chambers said the new facility will be convenient for Chinese troops engaging in training maneuvers in Southeast Asia and the South China Sea. It will also serve as a "weapons supply pipeline in case Chinese troops are deployed for combat in Southeast Asia, given that this factory will help secure the supply chain," he said.

With such a facility on home soil, the Thai military would be expected to purchase Chinese weaponry in quantity and at favorable prices. The generals want to "enhance military stockpiles" as part of a 10-year plan, Chambers said.

Western diplomats have watched the post-coup relationship with China develop. In 2015, 28 VT-4 tanks were ordered, and 10 more in 2017. The machines are built by China North Industries Corp. A Yuan Class S26T submarine was ordered last year at a cost of 13.5 billion baht ($400 million). Two more will follow at a total procurement cost of 36 billion baht.

The generals have meanwhile upped national security spending. Details of military budgets are discussed in secret on national security grounds, with even the unelected parliament left in the dark. The National Legislative Assembly approved a 20% increase in the national security budget for 2019, raising it to 329.2 billion baht from 274 billion baht in 2018.

Diplomatic relations between the two countries have seen some improvement since President Donald Trump replaced President Barack Obama, who placed greater emphasis on political freedom and human rights, and froze open military engagement. There have been visits by senior U.S. generals to review procurements, as well as a sustained public relations campaign surrounding the 200th anniversary this year of diplomatic relations between Thailand and the U.S. A high point for Prayuth was his visit to the White House in October 2017.

"The current level of defense cooperation should be seen in the context of enhanced comprehensive Thai-U.S. relations," Lt. Gen. Werachon Sukhondhapatipak, a government spokesman, told Nikkei. "Thailand and the U.S. are commemorating 200 years of relations this year, and the fact that Thailand is the oldest U.S. ally in the region contributes to the current level of defense cooperation between the two countries."

Although the 2014 coup seriously tested relations with the Obama administration, and made China seem attractive as a noncritical, accommodating military ally, Thailand's defense arrangements still follow the U.S. military playbook. Apart from Apirat, many other senior officers received training in the U.S.

The National Security Council and other intelligence agencies were also set up originally by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency during the Cold War, which does not dispose them readily toward Beijing. According to Sanit Nakajitti, director of PSA Asia, a political risk and security consultancy in Bangkok, "The U.S. intelligence community has better ties with the Thais, and this has even been so after the coup."

A NSC operative agrees, admitting his people look up to their U.S. peers. "The coup did not weaken these ties for us," he said. "Don't make a big deal about China."

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