China Sends the Marines to Thailand

Since Oct. 26, the Marine Corps of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) have been training with Thai Marines in an exercise due to last until Nov. 14 and the latest drill to demonstrate China’s expanding military ties across the world.

In September, for instance, an unknown number of China's People's Liberation Army Air Force Russian-built Su-27 and Mig-29 fighters trained with Turkish US-built F-16 fighters in the first ever military exercise of its kind between China and a NATO country. The People's Liberation Army and Air Force also participated in a series of military exercises conducted in September 2010 in Kazakhstan with military personnel from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Russia. Although the ostensible purpose of the exercise was to test and coordinate joint counter-terrorist operations, in reality the 'Peace Mission' gave China a unique opportunity to deploy land and air units in strength beyond its borders.

The US and other nations including Singapore are closely watching the activity in the Gulf of Thailand in and around the Sattahip Naval Base, near Bangkok, as China seeks to secure its access south to strategic sea lanes. The Blue Assault-2010 joint training exercise is much smaller than America's annual Cobra Gold military drills which, among several sites, also include Sattahip Naval Base, where Thailand's Marine Corps is headquartered at Camp Samaesan.

Washington and Bangkok are non-NATO military allies. During the US-Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s, Thailand allowed its territory to be used by America to launch massive aerial bombardments against Vietnam and Laos, where a limited number of Thai ground forces also fought alongside US troops.

After regarding China as a communist foe during the Cold War, Bangkok’s relations with Beijing have steadily improved in the past 30 years. Some analysts claim Thailand is intentionally balancing its military and financial dependence on the U.S. by nurturing

better relations with China.

Other analysts say relations between Beijing and Bangkok have more to do with the geographical and commercial closeness of Thailand and China, which are separated by tiny Communist Laos. China wants to diversify its southern routes, especially from landlocked Yunnan province, because China's main southeastern sea port is Hong Kong which is not convenient for some imports and exports. If China could cut straight south across Laos into Thailand, it would give Beijing faster access via Thailand's modern transport links to Bangkok and the Gulf of Thailand, and speed travel further south to Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, and the southernmost waters of the resource-rich South China Sea.

China is also trying to upgrade a southern route from Yunnan province through Burma, which

opens to Burmese ports along the Bay of Bengal near Calcutta and eastern India, leading to the South Asian island of Sri Lanka and the Indian Ocean.

"It is in the common interests of China and other countries to maintain freedom and security of navigation in the region," said Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of the General Staff of the People's Liberation Army. Ma, however, did not specify the China-Thailand exercise during his keynote speech on Oct. 22 in the Chinese city of Xiangshan where a three-day forum of military scholars discussed the "Evolution of International Strategic Configuration and Asia-Pacific Security," organized by the China Association for Military Science.

The amphibious operation by China with the Royal Thai Marine Corps may involve about 135 Marines from each country, according to sketchy reports about the relatively unpublicized military training. It has attracted attention on the Southeast Asian island of Singapore, however, which is a staunch US military partner for regional security, especially for shipping lanes.

"Amphibious military capabilities have application in disaster relief and humanitarian operations, but they are designed mainly for complex combat assault missions launched from the sea," Singapore's Straits Times reported, describing the Thailand-China military exercise. "In China's case, the capability would be particularly important in a full-scale conflict with Taiwan."

China opposes independence for Taiwan, and has vowed to eventually absorb the island which lies across a 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait. Washington insists it will defend Taipei against any aggression, and has sold weapons worth billions of dollars to the island.

"The United States also has concerns in Asia about threats to peace and stability in the East China Sea, South China Sea, and over terrorist threats in Southeast Asia, humanitarian crises, and security for sea lines of communication, particularly through the Straits of Malacca," which separate Singapore and Indonesia, said a Congressional Research Service report titled, "Guam: US Defense Deployments," issued in 2009 for members and committees of Congress.

China's drill with the Royal Thai Marine Corps began just after the end of a 15-day counter-terrorism training exercise between Thai and Chinese Special Forces in China's southern city of Guilin. "The two armies have been holding annual joint Special Forces exercises since 2007," the Bangkok Post said, adding that the first naval exercise, called China-Thailand Friendship 2005, took place in the Gulf of Thailand five years ago.

Many Thais trace their families' ancestors to China, and are known here as Sino-Thais, enjoying prominent and wealthy positions in Bangkok's political and financial circles. As a result, Thailand is comfortable with improving its relations with China while maintaining close ties with the US, in tactics Bangkok perceives as diplomatic, profitable and pragmatic.

China's snuggling up to Thailand was especially noticeable after the Thai military seized power in a bloodless 2006 coup, when Beijing immediately welcomed Thailand's new junta.

"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," Ian Storey, a Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, wrote in 2008. "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," Storey said.

"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."

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. His web page is http://www.asia-correspondent.110mb.com