China and Thailand: Enhancing Military-Security Ties in the 21st Century

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 14

This week Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej was in China for a 4-day visit, his first since taking office in January. Samak, who is concurrently defense minister, met with Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie and the two sides agreed to strengthen bilateral military ties. Although Thailand has been wracked by political uncertainty for over 18 months, this has not impaired the close relationship between Bangkok and Beijing. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of the September 2006 coup, China moved to embrace the new government while its treaty ally, the United States, looked on disapprovingly at the regression of Thai democracy. Nevertheless, as with other countries in Southeast Asia, Thailand seeks to balance the interests and influence of America and China, hedging against alternative futures. A central element of Bangkok’s hedging strategy is to keep its military alliance with the United States well lubricated, while at the same time expanding defense ties with China. Given the cozy relationship that has developed between Thailand and China over the past few decades it is unsurprising that military-security links are among China’s most well-developed in the region—second only to Burma, China’s quasi-ally—and the Kingdom has chalked up some impressive firsts in the arena of ASEAN-China defense ties, including a groundbreaking agreement with the PRC in 2007 that outlined the parameters of future cooperation.

The Origins of Sino-Thai Military Cooperation

Military cooperation between Thailand and China goes back further for China than with any other founding ASEAN member [1], and was catalyzed by Vietnam’s December 1978 invasion of Cambodia. Bangkok and Beijing quickly cast off two decades of hostility and entered a strategic alignment designed to curb Vietnamese expansionism. Thailand became a conduit for Chinese-supplied military equipment to the anti-Vietnamese Khmer Rouge guerillas across the border in occupied Cambodia, and while China stopped short of providing Thailand with a defense guarantee, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was used to exert pressure on Hanoi from the Chinese side of the border, repeatedly shelling positions inside Vietnam when Vietnamese troops clashed with the Thai military.

As a means to bolster the capabilities of the Thai armed forces, and also to increase its commercial arms sales in the region, Beijing furnished Bangkok with weaponry at no-cost or at greatly reduced “friendship prices” with very generous repayment terms. The first shipment of Chinese weapons, artillery pieces and ammunition arrived gratis in Thailand in 1985. In 1987 the Kingdom became the first ASEAN country to buy weapons from the PRC: 50-60 tanks, 400 armored personnel carriers (APCs), and anti-aircraft guns. Two years later the defense relationship was raised a notch higher when the Thai government placed an order for four Jianghu-class frigates (Chao Praya, Bangpakorn, Kraburi, and Saiburi) and two enlarged versions of the same class (Naresuan and Taksin) which were delivered in the early 1990s and still form the backbone of the Royal Thai Navy (RTA).

However, Thai purchases of Chinese military equipment during the 1980s was as much for political reasons as military ones, and throughout this period Bangkok continued to rely on the United States for its most technologically sophisticated platforms, such as the F-16 fighter jet. Moreover, the Thai military was far from impressed with the poor quality of Chinese-made equipment, and while some of it was employed along the Thai-Cambodian border, much it was reserved for training purposes or simply warehoused and left to rust. Bangkok was also disappointed that Chinese weapons sales had not included technology transfer.

The Paris Peace Accords of 1991 marked the resolution of the Cambodian Crisis and at a single stroke removed the rationale for the Sino-Thai alignment. During the 1990s the two countries focused on maximizing economic synergies while military-to-military ties languished, though the two sides continued to exchange high-level military delegations for old time’s sake.

Tightening Relations under Thaksin

It was not until Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra took office in February 2001 that the bilateral military relationship was reenergized and expanded. This was partly a result of the prime minister’s desire to bolster relations with the PRC across the board, but also owed a great deal to the personal interests of General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, who concurrently served as deputy prime minister and defense minister for much of the Thaksin government’s six years in office. As director of operations, deputy commander and then commander of the Royal Thai Army (RTA) during the 1980s, Chavalit was Thailand’s point man with the PLA over Cambodia, and forged close personal ties with the Chinese leadership and military top brass. In particular Chavalit developed a lasting friendship with General Chi Haotian, Chinese defense minister from 1993 to 2003 and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission. It was the personal chemistry between Chavalit and Chi that helped kick-start Sino-Thai military ties in the new century.

Prior to 2001 bilateral defense ties had been ad hoc; a framework to discuss military-security issues and map out future cooperation was lacking. In June 2001 General Chi accepted Chavalit’s proposal to hold annual defense talks to remedy that deficiency (Bangkok Post, June 22, 2001). The first defense meeting was held in December 2001, and has been held every year since then. According to press reports, at the first meeting the two sides discussed regional and international security issues and cooperation between the two countries’ armed forces (Xinhua, December 2, 2001). The annual defense talks have served as an essential mechanism to advance bilateral military cooperation in four main areas since 2001: first, observance of each other’s military exercises; second, a resumption of Chinese arms sales to Thailand; third, educational exchanges; and fourth, combined training and exercises.

With regard to the first area, PLA observers have attended the annual U.S.-Thai Cobra Gold military exercises—the largest military exercise in Asia—since 2002, except for 2004. And since 2003 Thai military officers, along with those from other countries, have observed several large PLA exercises, including “Northern Sword” in Inner Mongolia in August 2003 and September 2005, and “Iron Fist” in Henan province in September 2004.

With Chavalit as defense minister, Thailand once again turned to the PRC as a source of arms. In 2001 the Defense Ministry agreed to buy Chinese-manufactured rocket propelled grenade launchers and in December 2002 placed a $98 million order for two Thai-designed offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) [2]. The two vessels—Pattani and Narathiwat—were delivered in late 2005. However, further offers by China to sell a range of defense equipment to the Kingdom failed to materialize. This included a follow-on order for two OPVs and an unspecified number of main battle tanks, while a proposed barter exchange deal involving 66,000 tons of dried Thai Longan fruit for Chinese-made APCs also fell through (instead Thailand purchased APCs from South Africa). Resistance from the Thai military on quality grounds was one reason for the failure to secure further orders, while Chi’s retirement in 2003 and Chavalit’s exit from politics in 2005 were other important factors.

The third area of cooperation has been education. The number of Thai military officers attending educational courses at the National Defense University in Beijing has increased since 2001, as has the number of PLA officers studying at Thai military academies. The purpose of these courses is to enhance understanding of each other’s strategic perspectives, and to improve language skills for future cooperative activities.

The fourth area is combined training and exercises. In late 2005 milestones were reached in both areas. In September the PLA began a three-month landmine clearance training program for the RTA along the Thai-Cambodian border, the first time the Chinese military had extended this expertise to a Southeast Asian country (Xinhua, September 8, 2005). In December the Thai and Chinese navies conducted their first joint exercise. Codenamed “China-Thailand Friendship 2005,” the exercise took place in the Gulf of Thailand and featured the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) guided-missile destroyer Shenzhen and supply ship Weishanhu as well as the RTN frigate Chao Praya. The exercise simulated a rescue mission at sea followed by Thai and Chinese vessels escorting United Nations-chartered ships on a humanitarian mission (PLA Daily, December 14, 2005). Similar exercises had been conducted with the Pakistani Navy in October 2003 and the Indian Navy in November 2003, but this was the first such exercise between the PLAN and a Southeast Asian navy.

Post-Coup Military-Security Cooperation

In July 2005, as the two countries celebrated 30 years of diplomatic relations, Prime Minister Thaksin and Premier Wen Jiabao agreed to negotiate a roadmap to enhance bilateral relations: the Joint Action Plan on Thailand-China Strategic Cooperation. Thaksin’s ouster by the Thai military on September 19, 2006 temporarily put negotiations on hold (China Brief, September 20, 2006). However, while Thaksin’s downfall was something of a setback for China—the Thai leader had proved to be a valuable ally on a range of issues—the Chinese government seized on the coup as an opportunity to demonstrate to the Thai elite that the PRC was, once again, a steadfast friend in times of crisis, just as it had been during the 1973 Oil Crisis (when China had offered crude oil sales to Bangkok at “friendship prices”), the 1980s Cambodian Crisis, and the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis (when the PRC contributed $1 billion to the IMF’s bailout package). While the United States publicly criticized the overthrow of the democratically elected government and suspended $24 million in military aid, China declared the coup to be Thailand’s internal affair and, in February 2007 during a trip to Beijing by coup leader General Sonthi Boonyarataglin, offered $49 million in military credits, double the amount suspended by Washington [3]. Negotiations on the Joint Action Plan resumed.

The long awaited Joint Action Plan was signed on May 28, 2007 in Beijing and overseen by Thaksin’s successor, retired General Surayud Chulanont. The 12-page document outlines bilateral cooperation in 15 areas over the period 2007-2011 [4]. Part II of the agreement addresses military cooperation. It calls on the two sides to maintain military dialogue and exchange visits, conduct combined military exercises focused on countering non-traditional security threats, and promote further cooperation in the fields of military training, logistics, personnel training, academic exchanges, defense consultation, mutual observance of military exercises, disaster relief and rescue, and the defense industry. Part III is devoted to security cooperation and recommends enhancing cooperation in the following areas of non-traditional security: counter- and anti-terrorism; trafficking in illegal narcotics, people, and arms; money laundering, cyber and financial crime; and piracy at sea. To that end it proposes the regular exchange of officials and experts, capacity building through training and study visits, and the convening of a Thailand-China Joint Working Group on Non-traditional Security Cooperation as a mechanism to exchange views and share information among relevant law enforcement agencies.

Surayud moved quickly to implement some of the cooperative military activities identified in the Joint Action Plan. In July 2007 “Strike 2007” took place, a 13-day exercise in Guangzhou involving two teams of 15 Special Forces each from the Thai and Chinese militaries. The exercise—the first Special Forces exercise between China and another country—included marksmanship, hand-to-hand combat techniques, jungle warfare training, and hostage rescue situations (Xinhua, July 30, 2007). In September Surayud’s cabinet approved the acquisition of Chinese-made C-802 anti-ship missiles worth $48 million as part of the phasing out of the C-801 missiles onboard RTN frigates, and likely paid for using the military credits offered by China earlier in the year (Bangkok Post, September 26, 2007). Toward the end of 2007, Surayud, in talks with visiting Chinese Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan, discussed the possibility of joint weapons production (Thai News Agency, December 3, 2007). Details were not forthcoming at the time, though there was strong speculation that future defense industry cooperation would center on missile technology and production.

Since January Prime Minister Samak has been preoccupied with his own government’s survival against a backdrop of rising political tensions and rumors of another military coup. As a consequence, no major developments in Sino-Thai military relations occurred in the first half of 2008, though future cooperative activities were being planned under the rubric of the Joint Action Plan and another joint exercise is expected before the end of the year.

The military-security relationship between China and Thailand experienced consolidation and expansion under the Thaksin administration: annual defense talks were initiated, acquisition agreements inked, and joint training exercises conducted. Prime Minister Surayud promoted the relationship further, overseeing the Joint Action Plan which is likely to serve as a template for future agreements between China and other ASEAN countries. However, due to concerns over quality and after-sales service, Thailand is unlikely to place any major orders with the PRC anytime soon, though joint research and development leading to co-production of weapons systems is quite likely. Thailand today looks to diversify its sources of weapons supply to reduce reliance on one country, as the recent order for 12 Gripen fighters from Sweden testifies. Moreover, Sino-Thai military relations have a long way to go before they start to rival that between the U.S. and Thai militaries, who conduct more than 40 joint military exercises every year. A sense of perspective is important: the May 2008 U.S.-Thai Cobra Gold exercise (in which Japan, Singapore, and Indonesia also participated) was conducted over a 13-day period and involved 12,000 military personnel, 14 naval ships, and 96 combat aircraft; in contrast “China-Thailand Friendship 2005” involved three ships and lasted 3 hours and 20 minutes. Nevertheless, the military-security relationship between China and Thailand is on an upward trajectory.


1. ASEAN was established in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand.

2. Robert Karniol, “China unveils new patrol vessel for Thailand,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, 24 December 2003.

3. Kavi Chongkittavorn, “Post-Coup Thailand in the eyes of the US and China”, The Nation, February 12, 2007.

4. Joint Action Plan on Thailand-China Strategic Cooperation between the Government of the Kingdom of Thailand and the Government of the People’s Republic of China 2007-2011, May 28, 2007. Author copy.