China's growing strategic as well as economic influence over Thailand is now being challenged by a more assertive Japan. In a new diplomatic push, Tokyo for the first time since the end of World War II has approached Bangkok as a potential ally in responding to the new strategic environment in the region. And some in the military-backed government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha say it is no longer a "given" that Thailand would remain passively neutral in the regional context, which they say lacks balance among the major powers.
The Japanese approach is still at an early stage after the two countries began holding exploratory talks about their respective views. The exchanges between senior officials have taken place against the backdrop of intensive diplomatic engagement by Thailand with a range of powers including China, Russia and India over the past two years. In the past, Thailand was more closely aligned on the security front with the U.S. camp, but bilateral tensions since Prayuth's May 2014 military coup have weighed on security cooperation as well as other areas of engagement.
In a concerted push to diversify its military relationships, Thailand held its first joint military exercises with China in May, and touted a new era of security cooperation with Beijing. And during the Thai leader's recent visit to Russia, Bangkok agreed to purchase Russian-made tanks and helicopters. Moscow also pledged to provide training and joint research on arms manufacturing. With India meanwhile, Thailand has agreed to strengthen strategic cooperation in both maritime security and counter-terrorism.
But it has been Japan's new display of interest in forging bilateral security ties that has caught the attention of Southeast Asian countries. After the Thai military seized power in the 2014 coup, Japan criticized the takeover but quickly changed its stance, putting focus instead on shoring up bilateral relations. Indeed, Thai-Japanese relations have continued to strengthen even as the U.S. continues to limit defense cooperation with Bangkok.
When Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida delivered a major foreign policy speech about the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Bangkok in May, Tokyo wanted to highlight the pivotal role that its former World War II ally could play in the new regional environment, both as a developmental and strategic partner.
Japan's new focus on Thailand and the Mekong sub-region has resonated well with the Thai military regime. The two countries are longstanding Asian allies of the U.S., along with Australia, South Korea and the Philippines. The security policies of these countries have always paid heed to U.S. priorities in the region. Each country has tried to assist Washington militarily. Japan hosts nearly 50,000 U.S. troops at bases in facilities in Japan, while Thailand has provided crucial logistics support for many U.S. overseas operations, especially military and humanitarian assistance in the Middle East.
During the Cambodian conflict between 1979 and 1992, Japan and Thailand worked closely together as part of regional efforts to end the civil war. They also took part in peacekeeping and police work after the conflict to rebuild the war-torn country. Now, the two countries want to reorient their defense posture, creating distinctive regional strategies as their officials emphasize that no single country can alone secure peace in this tense part of the world.
When Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani visited Bangkok in June, he and his Thai counterpart, Prawit Wongsuwan, held the most substantive bilateral defense discussions so far on their future security relationship. The talks went far beyond previous bilateral discussions that focused on basic information and intelligence exchanges, humanitarian assistance and anti-piracy training, and acknowledged the aim to engage in joint military exercises.
A memorandum of understanding was signed during Nakatani's visit to promote military technological transfers and research. Both sides agreed to increase the number of Thai military officers to be trained at Japan's elite National Defense Institute beyond the 179 who have already attended. While Japan already participates in the annual Thai-U.S. Cobra Gold military exercise, hosted by Thailand, including operations such as evacuation of civilians, Thailand wants Japan to take part in the amphibious landing exercises of the annual event.
On the procurement front, Thailand plans to acquire Japanese-made patrol and rescue aircraft, although that depends on how much the country is prepared to increase military spending. Tokyo is eager to export non-lethal military hardware to foreign countries followed the lifting of its weapons sale ban. In 1999, Thailand unsuccessfully tried to buy secondhand U.S. F-5 jet fighters from Japan, in a deal that failed to gain the required U.S. permission.
In light of the tense situation in the South China Sea and between various regional neighbors, Thailand is no longer cautious about forging closer defense cooperation with Japan. After their brief alliance during World War II, when Thailand supported Japanese forces in Southeast Asia, Bangkok halted all defense cooperation with Tokyo in the postwar period. In the late 1980s, Thailand and Japan tried to initiate joint maritime patrols to combat piracy, but there were objections from other ASEAN members.
However, the dramatic changes in Japan's foreign and defense policy under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the past three years have affected Thailand's overall security strategy. During the Yingluck Shinawatra government, which was deposed in the May 2014 coup, Thailand discreetly turned down Japan's overture to strengthen maritime security cooperation, while Vietnam and the Philippines went ahead and signed memorandums of understanding with Tokyo.
Even as Thailand and China have increased their defense ties, Bangkok now sees it as necessary to respond to Japan's new overtures. After all, Japan's active support of the "peace principle" based on rules-based international cooperation also augurs well for Thailand's defense policy in strengthening regional peace and stability. As such, it is important that the deepening of Thai-Japanese security cooperation should not be aimed at a third party. Within ASEAN, Thailand is among the closest to China.
Both China and Japan are actively wooing Thailand and other ASEAN members. It remains to be seen how this emerging multifaceted security dynamic -- and within it the new signs of Thai-Japanese defense cooperation -- will play out in the future. Ultimately, Thailand's strongest desire is to create a new equilibrium between China and Japan in their competition to achieve a dominant position in the region. And it clearly hopes to be at the center of that new balance.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a Bangkok-based journalist and a senior fellow at Institute of Security and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University.