China and the United States are both competing to be a major arms supplier to Thailand as they seek to capitalise on old ties and emerging new ones.
While the US has seen Thailand as an old ally dating back to the Vietnam War, China sees Thailand as an important player in its Belt and Road Initiative which seeks to connect the rest of Asia with the Asian giant.
Although Thailand has not committed to anything concrete to either side, Thai prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has had to play a balancing act when dealing with the two countries.
It showed the extent to which China has made inroads in a nation with deep US military connections going back decades.
Designated by former US President George W Bush as a “major non-NATO ally” in 2003, Thailand served as a key staging ground during the Vietnam War.
Bloomberg said that US-Thai relations soured after Gen Prayut led a military coup in 2014, triggering American laws that restrict defence ties until democracy is restored.
It said that China quickly filled the void, stepping up military exercises and signing 10 major arms deals.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, this includes Thailand’s largest defence purchase ever, US$1.03 billion (RM4.3 billion) for three diesel electric submarines and 48 battle tanks.
“Ultimately the reset in Thai-US relations means that Thailand finds itself at the centre of a geo-strategic tug-of-war between the US and China in Southeast Asia,” said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of South East Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai.
After the Thai elections in March, the US has moved quickly to make up lost ground with Secretary of State Michael Pompeo hailing Thailand for “returning to the democratic fold” during a visit to Bangkok in August, as his department pushed its “Buy American” weapons export strategy.
US Embassy in Bangkok spokeswoman Jillian Bonnardeaux said weapons and assistance programs from competitors “rarely deliver at advertised capability and instead leave the buyer in debt with systems that are not operational.”
Thailand said in August it will receive 70 Stryker armoured vehicles by year end under the US Foreign Military Sales program, and that it plans to purchase 50 more.
The following month, the Thai army said it’s buying eight AH 6i light attack reconnaissance helicopters in a US$138 million (RM577 million) deal.
Competition between the US and China also has extended to military exercises in recent years. Thailand continues to host the US backed “Cobra Gold” exercise, the largest military drill in Asia, which this year featured 29 participating countries including 4,500 US personnel and several dozen from China.
However at the same time, Thailand has participated in more combined military exercises with China than any other Southeast Asian country.
“It’s about creating balance. We can’t choose sides, we have to be friendly to everyone,” Raksak Rojphimphun, the director general of policy and planning at the Thai Defence Ministry, said on the sidelines of an Asean defence ministers meeting in Bangkok last month.
“We’re a small country. We can’t choose our friends.”
According to SIPRI data, China’s conventional arms sales surged from US$644 million (RM2.69 billion) in 2008 to US$1.04 billion (RM4.35 billion) in 2018.
Still, the overall value of its trade pales in comparison to the US, whose exports averaged over US$9 billion (RM37.6 billion) annually during the last ten years. In 2018 alone, the US exported US$10.5 billion (RM43.89 billion) worth of weapons to foreign militaries.
For Thailand, China may provide a cheaper alternative than the US for certain weapons.
As the world’s fifth largest arms supplier, China has largely sold to its Asian neighbours, with Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar among their biggest customers.
SIPRI’s arms and military expenditure program senior researcher Siemon Wezeman said Southeast Asia was a growing market for defence with countries having more money to spend and feel a need to react to their neighbours.
He said that reduced US engagement in Asia, helped push other players more toward China.
“The US just became a visibly less and less reliable partner,” he added.-New Straits Times