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International relations

Thailand-US defense ties heal as China makes gains in Cambodia

Delivery of armored vehicles comes as Washington frets over Beijing's dominance

BANGKOK -- Gen. Apirat Kongsompong, Thailand's powerful army chief, is shifting the kingdom's security architecture, and U.S. military equipment is helping to lay the groundwork.

A recent announcement that Thailand had taken delivery of the first 10 of more than 100 armored vehicles from America affirmed that the decades-old allies are again warming up to each other, after Thailand's military coup in 2014 chilled the relationship.

The thaw began after Thailand held elections in the spring. Before the voting, Bangkok's ruling generals had turned to China as a more sympathetic supplier to a defense force of 335,000 active duty troops.

In the meantime, Washington grew nervous about China supplying an old ally and about the People's Liberation Army possibly gaining access to a military base in neighboring Cambodia.

In early September, Thailand took possession of 10 Stryker infantry carriers that had served tours of duty with U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. The delivery came after the U.S. lifted a ban on arms sales to Thailand, the culmination of a policy shift President Donald Trump began after taking over from Barack Obama in 2017. The shift has also enabled Bangkok's generals to order four Black Hawk helicopters.

The Thai military has set its sights on securing 140 armored personnel carriers. Bangkok will pay for some, and Washington will make a gift of the rest. In July, the U.S. State Department approved the transfer of 60 Strykers to Thailand, which will pay 2.96 billion baht ($96 million) for 37 of the vehicles.

The next batch will come under Thailand's fiscal 2020 budget, according to political insiders. The budget is awaiting parliamentary approval. Apirat reportedly intends to buy 50 more Strykers and expects to receive an additional 30 as gifts.

Thailand's military is used to the government's budgets reflecting its plans, at least since a 2006 coup, the sources said. In fiscal 2019, the defense budget came to 227 billion baht ($7.4 billion), up from 115 billion baht in fiscal 2007.

The plan is to have 100 Strykers by the end of this year, which would represent a big step in the modernization of Thailand's military. Many of the armored vehicles are to be assigned to boost the once overlooked 11th Light Infantry Division, in Chachengsao, a province east of Bangkok. "It is part a plan to first build a Stryker battalion and then gradually expand into a division," a Thai military intelligence source said.

The personnel carriers fit into "our security needs, which stress new capabilities, new flexibility and [the ability] to meet new threats that require a multidimensional response," Panitan Wattanayagorn, security adviser to Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "Buying Strykers should not upset China because we have managed our relationship with both powers based on a strategy of complex engagement. Some people may call it hedging, but we are making competitors happy in their choice of Thailand as a bridge."

U.S.-based analysts regard Bangkok's turn toward the U.S. in a different light. "It is the bare minimum that the Thai military is doing to keep the alliance alive," said Zachary Abuza, professor of Southeast Asian security at the Washington, D.C.-based National War College. "I think that it is clear that some within the RTAF (Royal Thai Armed Forces) are concerned that they have lurched too closely to China since the diplomatic opprobrium following the 2014 coup d'etat set in."

The pendulum is far from swinging completely toward the U.S.

Around the time that the Strykers arrived earlier this month, the Thai navy signed a 6.1 billion-baht deal in Beijing with the state-owned China Shipbuilding Industry Co. for a Type 071 landing platform dock warship, a 20,000-ton amphibious vessel. In 2017, Thailand's navy ordered a 13.5 billion baht Chinese submarine -- the first of a three-vessel deal costing $1 billion.

China has already equipped Thailand's army, which earlier this year purchased three armored personnel carriers, 12 armored command vehicles and other equipment. Top generals have also gone to China for main battle tanks to replace decades-old U.S. tanks, after an order for Ukranian-made tanks fell through. The Chinese tanks have been deployed to the newly created Third Cavalry Division in the northeastern province of Khon Kaen.

According to Murray Hiebert, a senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, the shadow China is casting over Thai-U.S. military ties is viewed by the U.S. in a broader, Southeast Asian context in which Beijing is cultivating Cambodia as a military ally.

"One of the biggest and most immediate security challenges, of course, is to figure out whether China did a secret deal with Hun Sen to gain access to the naval base at Ream," he said.

Sailors stand guard near petrol boats at the Ream Naval Base. The U.S. is asking questions about what kind of access Cambodia might have granted China to this base near Sihanoukville   © Reuters

Ream sits along the southeast shore of the Gulf of Thailand.

There are also questions about China's intentions just north of Ream. Hiebert said another U.S. concern is "whether the construction of a giant runway at the Chinese resort at Koh Kong is for handling Chinese military planes.

"Access to the base at Ream would give the Chinese military easy access to the Gulf of Thailand and put them nearly within shouting distance from (the Thai naval base in) U-Tapao. That could be a regional security game changer."

In July, The Wall Street Journal reported that China and Cambodia had sealed a secret deal that will allow China to station troops in Ream. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, China's strongest ally in the region, has denied the report.

A Thai government insider expects the U.S. to turn to Thailand to keep tabs on China's military designs in the region. "They are already doing it here -- the U.S. is asking us about how Chinese operate in Thailand." The source added that the U.S. is particularly interested in the activities of Chinese experts and Chinese intelligence operatives.

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