THE TIMES ARE CHANGING

Thailand 2017 | DIPLOMACY | REVIEW: DIPLOMACY

The West may have taken a dim view on the 2014 coup, but China has been less judgmental about Thailand's domestic policy and the two countries have grown closer over the past couple of years.The West may have taken a dim view on the 2014 coup, but China has been less judgmental about Thailand's domestic policy and the two countries have grown closer over the past couple of years.

The Kingdom of Thailand has experienced a rocky few years domestically after the military took over government in 2014. Since then, the new administration has been trying to create stability in the country and assure its allies and neighbors that everything is business as usual. The coup was the climax of a wave of anti-government protests that swept the country demanding a more open and transparent administration. Since the coup, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha and his government have been working on establishing a timeline to reinstate a democratically elected government, something that the country's closest allies hope does not take too long. The government has also been establishing numerous trade links in the region, most notably with the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), which came into effect in 2015. This, along with the possible entry into the TPP, has gone a long way to settle the nerves of investors.

In addition to spreading trading ties, the government has also been maintaining its military ties. The Kingdom of Thailand hosts the Cobra Gold, an Asia-Pacific military exercise held on an annual basis that was set up by the US in 1982. The aim is to encourage cooperation among regional allies. Set up by the US, the Kingdom of Thailand has become one of the country's strongest allies in the region. There are currently 35 member states that take part, including Japan, Singapore, and South Korea along with observers from China, Russia, and South Africa. The exercise is not just about war maneuvers, with part of the operation dedicated to practicing humanitarian relief operations for natural disasters.

CHINA

Military coups rarely take place without controversy, and in the Kingdom of Thailand it was no different. The US, a strong ally of Thailand, has been placing considerable pressure on the new military government to push forward with democratic elections; however, due to a number of delays, it still remains in power. Elections were planned for late 2015, then in mid-2016, and after a series of postponements look set for some time in 2017. For the time being, it looks like the current administration is here to stay and people are getting used to life under military rule. How the coup will effect the Kingdom of Thailand's standing globally is still to be seen. Shortly after the coup the EU took immediate action in condeming it, while the US immediately suspended USD4.7 million in financial aid to the Thai military, and the EU suspended all official visits. Coups are generally seen with less favor in the West; however, the new leaders of the Kingdom of Thailand found that China has been more receptive. Chinese businessmen were quick to get on a plane over to the Kingdom of Thailand shortly after the coup and photos of them shaking hands with then general and now Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha afforded the Kingdom of Thailand some relief. China's more positive response illustrated the government's belief that China could offset any negative effects of Western sanctions. China and the Kingdom of Thailand's relations go back to the 1970s, but since 2014 they have grown much stronger. China's lack of interventionism in the country has been welcomed and the Thai PM has publicly thanked China for its “selfless assistance" during the country's difficult times.

DEFENSE

While much of the West has condemned the coup, no country has cut relations; especially when it comes to defense. The Kingdom of Thailand has long been a strong ally of the US, which has not changed. Naturally, with a military government, The Kingdom of Thailand sees defense as an important issue. In this regard, in June 2016, India and the country agreed to enhance cooperation on defense and maritime issues. The two countries are keen to tackle piracy and enhance cooperation in t

he maritime domain through new anti-piracy initiatives. They will also look to improve shipping lane security, coast guard cooperation, and the security of the Indian Ocean. The Kingdom of Thailand and India hope to finalize the White Shipping Agreement, which would improve the data sharing of cargo ships passing through the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. This will help to expand maritime cooperation even further in the region.

The Kingdom of Thailand looks to be solidifying defense relations in the region, and has looked toward China over the past year to do so. In May 2016, the Thai and Chinese defense ministers held talks on the sidelines of the ASEAN Defense Ministers meeting in Laos. The meeting was thought to be a seen as a sign of strengthening military relations between the two countries and a sign that the US is losing a partner in the East. Recently, the Kingdom of Thailand's National Security Council and China's intelligence agency signed agreements regarding new defense contracts, military R&D, and ways to bolster cooperation in counter terrorism. The country gets much of its military hardware from the US at a discounted price, and this does not look likely to drastically change anytime soon, but this shift by the Kingdom of Thailand to seek out other major powers shows an updated foreign policy when it comes to defense. The country has held talks with top-level officials from both China and Russia, as well as efforts to improve security relations with Europe. The Kingdom of Thailand's navy is also looking to purchase three Chinese S26 T Yuan Class submarines, while the army is looking at the VT4 battle tanks with an option to buy a further 153 of the Chinese-made vehicles. Army officials are also looking at the Russian made MI-17 helicopter, stating that the Black Hawk, the helicopter it usually buys, is too expensive. The Kingdom of Thailand's desire to upgrade its military and Russia's desire to access the country's economic market, especially its agriculture market, could prove a tempting relationship in the future. In 2016, the Kingdom of Thailand's military budget was set at USD5.8 billion, marking a 7% rise on the year before.

COBRA GOLD

After months of speculation, particularly surrounding the political situation in the Kingdom of Thailand, in June 2015 Southeast Asia's largest military exercise—Cobra Gold—went ahead as planned. Cobra Gold has been held in Thailand, the US' oldest ally in the region, annually since 1982. With its humble beginnings in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, over the years Cobra Gold has expanded to become a signature event in the defense calendar across Southeast Asia. Malaysia, South Korea, Singapore, Japan, and Indonesia have all since become participating members, while 11 other states, including China, Russia, and South Africa, have joined the initiative as observers.While Cobra Gold has expanded over the years, the aims and objectives of the exercise have generally remained the same: to increase cooperation between the armed forces of the US and Thailand—and the other 26 member states—in both hostile military and humanitarian efforts. Since 2014, the event has focused on three distinct exercises. Firstly, the integrated forces participate in a life fire exercise, or CALFEX, where troops assault predetermined targets, beaches, and landing zones. Second, military officers engage in simulated war games and disaster relief missions, known as Command Post Exercise. Finally, Cobra Gold has also included the local Thai population through training and support programs.The significance of Cobra Gold, both for Thailand and regional stability, is great. While the specific military gains are difficult to measure because the US has not engaged in a major intervention in the Pacific area since the Vietnam War, there have been noted improvements in coordinated military responses to natural disasters in the region, such as the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. From Thailand's perspective, hosting such a prestigious event has meant attracting leading military officials and industry experts to its shores. More importantly, with the region consolidating through the ASEAN initiative, and China emerging as an increasingly closer partner, Cobra Gold remains an important reminder that Thailand can still count on cooperation and support from its historic ally, the US.