From Strength to Strength: Military Exercises Bolster Sino-Thai Relations

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 12

Chinese and Thai Marines During the Recent Exercise

In May, as the tense face off between maritime law enforcement vessels from the Philippines and China at Scarborough Shoal entered its second month, several hundred marines from Thailand and China conducted combined military exercises in Guangdong province. The two events highlight the widening fault line within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) between those members who view Chinese assertiveness as a serious national security concern—which can only be addressed with help from the United States—and member states who do not have a direct stake in the dispute and continue to prioritize strengthening economic, political and security ties with Beijing. The Philippines falls on one side of the divide, Thailand on the other. As Sino-Philippine relations deteriorate, Sino-Thai relations move from strength to strength.

Developing Sino-Thai Relations

Thailand and China developed a close relationship in the late 1970s when threat perceptions converged in the wake of Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1978. During Hanoi’s decade-long occupation, Bangkok and Beijing forged a de facto strategic alliance. China exerted military pressure on Vietnam when the Vietnamese military violated Thai sovereignty and Thailand facilitated the delivery of Chinese weaponry to anti-Vietnamese Khmer Rouge guerrillas along the Thai-Cambodian border. When Vietnam withdrew its forces from Cambodia in the late 1980s, the focus of Sino-Thai cooperation shifted quickly and seamlessly to trade and investment, and Thailand quickly established itself as China’s most important economic partner in mainland Southeast Asia.

In the 1990s, bilateral ties continued to flourish and Bangkok was especially grateful to China for its economic support when its economy buckled during the 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis. Sino-Thai relations were greatly strengthened under Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from 2001 until his ouster by the military in 2006. In July 2011, elections again brought the Phuea Thai Party to power led by Thaksin’s younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra. In the short time that Yingluck has been Prime Minister, Sino-Thai relations have once again experienced another growth spurt.

Trade and investment remains the cornerstone of bilateral relations, and in both areas there has been rapid expansion. Two-way trade more than doubled between 2005 and 2010, from $20.3 billion to $46 billion [1]. In 2011, according to Chinese statistics, the value of two-way trade hit $64.7 billion (Straits Times, April 18). China is now Thailand’s second largest trade partner while Thailand is China’s 14th largest. The two sides have set the goal of expanding annual trade to $100 billion by 2015.

The past several years have also witnessed a surge in investment from China. Despite continuing political instability in Thailand, Chinese investors view Thailand as an important manufacturing and export base in Southeast Asia. Although Japan is still the largest foreign investor, China has quickly moved into the number two position. The value of Chinese investments in the Kingdom increased from Bt 8.14 billion ($2.7 million) in 2010 to Bt 24.84 billion ($788.5 million) in 2011, a jump of more than 200 percent (Thailand Business News, September 27, 2011).

During a visit to Thailand by Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping in December 2011, the two countries agreed to further strengthen bilateral ties. The Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation and Sustainable Development identified four main areas of cooperation: a high speed train system; water management systems; renewable energy sources; and education and human resources development (Thailand Business News, December 24, 2011).

The most important of these areas is the transfer of Chinese high-speed railway technology to Thailand. Since 2010, the two countries have been discussing a joint venture high-speed rail network that would eventually link Yunnan province with Laos, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. The Bt 150 billion ($4.8 billion) project envisages a 385-mile line from Nong Khai province in the northeast of the country to Bangkok. Construction is expected to begin in 2012 with completion set for 2016, per a Memorandum of Understanding signed in December 2011 (Straits Times, February 18, 2011).

Relations were given a further boost in April when Prime Minister Yingluck paid a three-day official visit to China, during which she met with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. The leaders of the two countries pledged to develop a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership” by increasing security cooperation—especially along the Mekong River where coordinated riverine patrols were launched in December 2011 to tackle trans-boundary crime—promoting bilateral trade and investment, improving cross-border transportation links, developing tourism and cultural ties as well as strengthening cooperation in the fields of agriculture science and technology and water resource management [2]. A 5-year Joint Action Plan on China-Thailand Strategic Cooperation also was concluded during Yingluck’s visit and replaced a similar agreement concluded in 2007.

Increased Sino-Thai Defense Cooperation

Among all the countries in Southeast Asia, Thailand has developed the closest military-to-military relationship with China. Indeed, Thailand has achieved a few “firsts” with China in the realm of military cooperation.

In the 1980s, Thailand was the first ASEAN country to receive Chinese-manufactured arms, either cost free or at heavily discounted “friendship prices.” In 2001, Thailand became the first ASEAN member to establish annual defense and security talks with China, a mechanism that paved the way for closer military collaboration. In 2005, the Royal Thai Armed Forces (RTAF) became the first Southeast Asian military to conduct combined exercises with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA): landmine clearance training followed by naval maneuvers. In 2007, Chinese and Thai Special Forces conducted a 13-day exercise,  the first between PLA Special Forces and their foreign counterparts. Two subsequent Sino-Thai Special Forces exercises took place in 2008 and 2010. Finally, in 2010, in another first for the PLA, Thai and Chinese marines participated in a combined exercise in the Gulf of Thailand.

Under Prime Minister Yingluck, bilateral defense cooperation is being stepped up. A few weeks after the Prime Minister’s visit to Beijing, Defense Minister Sukumpol Suwanatat (a former air force general) was in China accompanied by the ministry’s permanent secretary, the supreme commander of the RTAF, and all three service chiefs—the highest ranking Thai defense delegation to visit China in 15 years.

During Sukumpol’s visit, agreement was reached to jointly develop the DTI-1G multiple rocket launcher in a three-year project costing Bt 1.5 billion ($4.7 million) (Bangkok Post, April 28). Thailand and China have been discussing defense industry cooperation since 2007, but the rocket launcher deal is the first formal agreement in this area between the two countries.

The issue of Chinese submarines for the Royal Thai Navy (RTN) also resurfaced during the Thai delegation’s visit. The RTN has been keen to acquire a submarine capability since the late 1990s, but successive Thai governments have always rejected the idea on the grounds of cost. The RTN’s case however has been strengthened in recent years due to the submarine acquisition programs of neighboring countries including Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia. In 2008, China reportedly offered the RTN two Type 039 Song-class attack submarines. Based on this author’s recent discussions, RTN officers inspected the Song-class vessels soon after the offer was made but ultimately rejected it because of the high cost of modernizing the vessels and training the crews. Thailand examined other options and in 2011 decided to acquire six second-hand German submarines. In February, however, the German deal fell through, again due to concerns over costs.

In China, Defense Minister Sukumpol suggested RTN personnel might undergo training at the Qingdao Submarine Academy (Bangkok Post, April 30). Thai sailors, however, would need to undergo Chinese language instruction first, and their participation in the course would only be useful if Thailand decided to acquire Chinese submarines. According to the author’s discussions, it is highly unlikely that Bangkok will opt for Chinese submarines due to quality and price concerns. Bangkok’s options nevertheless are limited and China might be able to give Thailand an offer it cannot refuse in order to strengthen military-to-military relations. Chinese Defense Minister General Liang Guanglie told his Thai counterpart that China was willing to sell Thailand military equipment at “friendship prices” (Bangkok Post, April 28).

As far as future Sino-Thai military cooperation is concerned, the two sides have agreed to another “first”: a combined exercise involving aircraft from the Royal Thai Air Force and PLA Air Force (Bangkok Post, April 28). The visit of the Thai delegation was followed by a second combined exercise between Chinese and Thai marines in Guangdong, codenamed “Blue Commando-2012”. The exercise—which focused on anti-terrorism training and not on amphibious operations—took place over May 9-29 and involved 372 Chinese and 126 Thai marines (China Daily, May 11).

Thailand and the South China Sea Dispute

One reason why Sino-Thai relations have developed so smoothly since the end of the Cold War is the absence of contentious security problems. Most importantly, Thailand and China do not have overlapping territorial or maritime boundary claims in the South China Sea. Over the past two decades, Bangkok has neither criticized China’s actions in the South China Sea nor offered support to the Philippines and Vietnam during times of heightened tensions with China. Thailand’s strategy has been to avoid offending either China or its fellow ASEAN members by taking a strong position on the dispute.

It came as something of a surprise, therefore, when Prime Minister Yingluck mentioned the dispute during her visit to China. According to the Chinese media, Yingluck had said “Regarding the disputes in the South China Sea, Thailand understands China’s concerns over the issue” (China Daily, April 19). Although she did not elaborate, the Prime Minister’s comments seemed to indicate a degree of sympathy with China at a time when a war of words had erupted between Manila and Beijing over ownership of Scarborough Shoal (“ASEAN and the South China Sea: Movement in Lieu of Progress,” China Brief, April 27). Her comments could not have been well received by the governments of the Philippines and Vietnam, both of which have been highly critical of China’s behavior in the South China Sea over the past several years.

Yingluck’s comment provides further evidence of the growing rift within ASEAN between members that have significant economic and strategic interests in the South China Sea (the four ASEAN claimants Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, plus non-claimants Indonesia and Singapore) and those that do not (Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand). Over the past two decades the countries in this latter group have also developed close political and economic ties with China, and do not wish to damage those ties by taking positions on the South China Sea inimical to Beijing’s interests. This growing division within ASEAN has resulted in weak consensus and inaction over the South China Sea (“ASEAN and the South China Sea,” China Brief, April 27).

Bending with the Wind?

Thai statecraft has often been characterized as “bending with the wind”, i.e. that over the past two centuries Thailand has been able to preserve its political autonomy and sovereignty by aligning with the dominant power in Asia.

Thailand has been a treaty ally of the United States since 1954, and the RTAF has operated alongside its U.S. counterparts in a number of conflicts, including Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. While U.S. and Thai armed forces continue to conduct regular exercises—including the world’s largest annual field exercises, Cobra Gold—the alliance has, as one recent report concluded, “stagnated” [3]. Politically U.S.-Thai relations also have drifted and, economically, the relationship is not as important to Thailand as it once was. Although the United States is still a major investor in the Kingdom, Thailand’s trade with China far outweighs the value of U.S.-Thai commerce, which stood at $35 billion in 2011. As the Washington “pivots” or “rebalances” toward Asia, strengthening U.S.-Thai relations needs to be a priority if  Washington is to counter the increasingly close political, economic and security relationship between Bangkok and Beijing.


  1. Direction of Trade Statistics Yearbook (WashingtonD.C.: International Monetary Fund, 2011)
  2. Joint Statement between the People’s Republic of China and the Kingdom of Thailand on Establishing a Comprehensive Strategic Cooperative Partnership, April 19, 2012. For information on Mekong River security cooperation, see “Mekong River Patrols in Full Swing but Challenges Remain,”China Brief, February 21, 2012.
  3. Catharin E. Dalpino, An Old Alliance for the New Century: Reinvigorating the US-Thailand Alliance, NBR Special Report #40 (June 2012), p. 4.