- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 27, 2010

BANGKOK | China is expanding its military reach by sending, for the first time, a marine unit of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to train with another country in an upcoming exercise with Thailand’s armed forces.

The U.S. and other nations will be eyeing the China-Thailand exercise, which began Tuesday and is scheduled to run through Nov. 14 in and around the Sattahip Naval Base near Bangkok on the Gulf of Thailand, as Beijing seeks to secure its access south to strategic sea lanes amid a spate of recent disputes between China and its Asian neighbors.

The Blue Assault-2010 exercise is the first time China’s marines are training with another country’s forces, according to the Chinese National Defense Ministry, though other PLA units have trained with foreigners.

“The joint drill will focus on anti-terrorism. It will also aim at helping marines from Thailand and China learn from each other, enhance mutual understanding, step up friendly exchange and cooperation,” China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency reported.

The drill will involve more than 100 marines from each country — much smaller than America’s 29 annual Cobra Gold military drills that, among several sites, includes Sattahip base, where the Royal Thai Marine Corps has headquarters at Camp Samae San. During Cobra Gold, U.S. and Thai marines, with naval and air support, routinely assault a beach in southern Thailand, creating one of the most vital joint training exercises for Thai forces.

The exercise comes as Thailand and its neighbors in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) hold a summit in Hanoi starting Thursday. The summit will include meetings with officials from China, Japan and South Korea on Friday. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are scheduled to join the gathering Saturday.

China claims sovereignty over the entire South China Sea, contrary to claims of other nations, and recently had a nasty dispute with Japan over a boat collision near disputed islands in the East China Sea.

Security issues and maritime disputes are not on the official ASEAN summit agenda, but the issues could come up anyway because Mrs. Clinton helped persuade 12 of the 27 members of an ASEAN security forum in Hanoi in July to raise maritime issues. She said at the forum, to China’s displeasure, that Washington wanted to keep freedom of the seas in the region.

Washington and Bangkok are military allies of long standing. During the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s, Thailand let the U.S. use its territory to launch massive aerial bombardments in Vietnam and Laos, where Thai ground forces also fought alongside U.S. troops.

After regarding communist China during the Cold War years as a sinister foe bent on subversion, Bangkok’s relations with Beijing have steadily improved in the past 30 years and have included military cooperation.

The joint marines drill began just after the end of a 15-day counterterrorism 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 between China and Thailand took place in December 2005 in the Gulf of Thailand and was called China-Thailand Friendship 2005.”

Many Thais trace their family ancestry to China, with the Sino-Thais enjoying prominent and wealthy positions in Bangkok’s political and financial circles. As a result, Thailand sees improving its relations with China as a pragmatic and profitable and not contradicting its close ties with the U.S.

The Chinese-Thai exercise has attracted attention in nearby Singapore, a staunch U.S. military ally but also an island nation reliant on free 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 what some in the region fear is the purpose of Chinese marine capabilities.

“In China’s case, the capability would be particularly important in a full-scale conflict with Taiwan,” the Straits Times said.

China considers Taiwan a rebellious province and has vowed to absorb the island, which has maintained de facto independence across the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait since the communist revolution brought Mao Zedong to power in 1949. The U.S. keeps open its right to defend Taiwan against any military aggression, and has sold Taipei billions of dollars worth of weapons.

China wants to diversify its southern trade routes, especially from landlocked Yunnan province, because its main southern seaport at Hong Kong is not convenient for some imports and exports, and closer relations with Thailand would be a major boon for China in terms of trade routes.

If trade routes can cut straight south across communist Laos into Thailand, then the Chinese would gain 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.

China is also trying to upgrade a southern route from Yunnan province through Burma and its ports along the Bay of Bengal, offering cheap and easy access to nearby India and the wide-open Indian Ocean.

“It is the common interests of China and other countries to maintain freedom and security of navigation in the region,” said Gen. Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army.

Gen. Ma, however, did not specify the Chinese-Thai exercise during a speech 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.

China’s warming relations with Thailand were especially noticeable after the Thai military seized power in a bloodless 2006 coup and 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, has written.

“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,” Mr. Storey said.

In a 2008 article, Mr. Storey also noted that “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.”