- - Monday, November 9, 2015

BANGKOK — China and Thailand will conduct their first joint military air exercise with 180 Chinese officers and top pilots starting Thursday at a Thai base that the U.S. Air Force used for bombing missions over Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam War.

The joint action by Chinese and Thai forces, dubbed Falcon Strike, is the latest sign that Bangkok, a longtime U.S. anchor ally in the region, is prepared to hedge its bets between its traditional ally in Washington and the rising regional power in Beijing.

“For years, indeed decades, this cooperation would have been not only politically unthinkable, but technically impossible, as the [Royal Thai Air Force] was almost wholly dependent on the U.S., while China’s [support] was significantly less advanced,” Benjamin Zawacki, an American analyst who is writing a book on the U.S.-Thai-China axis, said in an interview. “For the U.S., it spells another zero-sum loss to an engaged and strategic China.”

Using its giant economy as a draw, Beijing has both courted and intimidated the smaller nations on its periphery. China has advanced aggressive territorial claims in the battle to control the vital shipping lanes of the South China Sea, but Chinese President Xi Jinping also has reached out to leaders in Southeast Asia. Most recently, he has met with the leaders of Vietnam, Singapore and Taiwan.

Mr. Zawacki said China is also stealing a march on the U.S. in Bangkok, with the military exercises just one symbol of China’s willingness to work with the authoritarian government of President Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former top army general who came to power in a bloodless May 2014 coup.

Despite President Obama’s proclaimed “pivot to Asia,” Mr. Zawacki said, “there is no rivalry between Washington and Beijing for Bangkok’s affections, as such would require Washington being aware and interested in Thailand as geopolitically important. The U.S. has not had a coherent policy in either Thailand or Southeast Asia as a whole for two decades, while the Chinese see and treat it as their ‘near abroad.’”

China and Thailand will conduct Falcon Strike over more than two weeks at the Royal Thai Air Force Base at Korat city, also known as Nakhon Ratchasima.

“Altogether 180 Chinese officers and top pilots, who will be led by senior air force men at the level of deputy chief of staff, will participate in the event, which will coincide with the 40th anniversary of Thai-Chinese diplomatic ties this year,” according to the Bangkok Post newspaper.

Falcon Strike will begin several days after a Thai-Chinese air show above Thailand that was held the first week of November.

Falcon Strike’s name echoes joint exercises between the two Asian neighbors, including Blue Strike, which began in 2010 featuring Chinese and Thai marines, and Strike-2007, involving both nations’ armies since 2007.

Vietnam War base

During the Vietnam War in the 1960s and early 1970s, which included sorties to Laos and Cambodia, 4,500 U.S. Air Force personnel launched their warplanes from Korat Air Base.

Nowadays, the U.S. and Thailand use the base together during Cope Tiger, one of the Pentagon’s annual multinational military exercises training Thai and other forces.

But as a result of the 2014 coup, “the U.S.’s existing law and policy put limits on levels of military-to-military leadership [contacts], but real work happens among soldiers on the ground, and that still goes on,” U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Glyn Davies told the Bangkok Post in an interview published Oct. 31.

Mr. Davies confirmed that the Pentagon will conduct its annual Cobra Gold multinational military exercise in Thailand next year despite the coup, but the joint exercise will be scaled down again because of tensions resulting from the coup. Thailand continues to be a major purchaser of U.S. arms.

Thailand’s relatively tiny, weak navy operates some vessels on the southwest coast along the Andaman Sea, which opens to the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean.

The navy also patrols the southeast coast, which hugs the shallow Gulf of Thailand and leads to the dangerously contested South China Sea, but Bangkok is not directly involved in clashing maritime claims of China and its neighbors around the sea. The Pentagon has conducted anti-terrorist training with Thai forces to protect U.S. and Thai oil and natural gas platforms in the Gulf of Thailand.

Mr. Zawacki said that because Bangkok and Beijing are not directly clashing over the South China Sea, “China has cultivated its [Bangkok‘s] role as ‘mediator’ — read ‘ally’ — for several years. This is ultimately to China’s benefit, as Obama’s ‘pivot’ to the region remains stillborn.”

But China’s new assertiveness has also spurred bigger defense budgets across the region, and Thailand is no exception. U.S. exhibitors hoping to sell weapons-related goods and services at an international trade show here included Colt, Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics.

Some analysts predict that the rapidly improving military, diplomatic and economic relations between Thailand and China will weaken Washington’s traditional ties with Bangkok. Others say Thailand will balance its affairs in a practical way to extract the most from both giant partners.

After Mr. Prayuth toppled the democratically elected government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, he canceled the constitution and arrested or silenced critical journalists, academics and dissidents. Support from China and the U.S. is therefore exceptionally valuable for Mr. Prayuth’s regime.

Many people in Buddhist-majority Thailand perceive China as a loyal, wealthy elder member of the family to be wooed and emulated.

But some worry about becoming Beijing’s economic colony and China’s strategic southern route to exploit Thailand’s lucrative ports.

Thailand’s relations with China date back centuries, with Chinese traders boosting this country’s roller coaster economy during wars, economic misfortune and domestic unrest.

“All the top 10 richest Thais in the 2014 Forbes 500 List were families of Chinese descent,” according to a recently published book by Jeffery Sng and Pimpraphai Bisalputra.

Some in Thailand say the air force joint exercise could be a way for Thailand to exert pressure of its own in a bid to ease growing regional tensions over China’s aggressive claims in the South China Sea, with Bangkok serving the role of “honest broker” in the clash of sovereignty claims.

Operation Falcon Strike represents an opportunity for the Prayuth government to “inject some diplomacy into the Thai-Chinese war games with talk about regional security,” according to a Nov. 2 lead editorial in the Bangkok Post.

“Never in the past 39 years have relations with Beijing been closer,” the paper wrote. “Thus, there never has been a better time for Thai diplomats and the military regime to energize efforts to bring China around to a South China Sea code of conduct — to be followed quickly by pressure on the U.S., Australia and others to sign.”

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