BANGKOK – With the impending return of an elected government in Thailand is set to give the U.S. more scope to counter China’s push for closer defense ties with the Southeast Asian nation.
The civilian administration installed after the March 24 poll won’t face the same U.S. curbs on defense links as the Thai military government that seized power in 2014. The U.S. by law is restricted from offering the junta loans and grants for arms purchases or international military education and training.
“We’re very actively preparing now to resume those,” U.S. Charge d’Affaires ad interim Peter Haymond said in an interview, referring to the programs for training and foreign military financing. That’s on the expectation the vote takes place as planned and yields a government supported by the Thai people, he said.
The military takeover almost five years ago unseated an elected administration and strained ties with Western democracies, making it harder for Thailand to buy weapons from them. The junta subsequently approved purchases of Chinese armored carriers, tanks and submarines, and expressed interest in a defense joint venture with Asia’s top economy.
Despite the recent track toward China and legal fetters on some programs, the U.S. remains a key supplier of weapons to treaty ally Thailand. For instance, the Thai airforce uses Lockheed Martin Corp. F-16 fighter jets and Black Hawk helicopters.
The U.S. government sold about $437 million of major hardware to Thailand through foreign military sales since 2014, Haymond said in the interview in Bangkok. That figure excludes any private-sector transactions.
Thailand is a non-NATO U.S. ally that served as a staging ground for American forces during the Vietnam War, and the Pentagon continues to value its strategic access to the nation’s airfields and ports.
The U.S. administration anticipates more military sales and training and views Thailand as a key part of the Indo-Pacific strategy, said Haymond. He heads the U.S. embassy in Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy as an ambassador has yet to be named.
Bilateral ties stretch back two centuries and include the sprawling annual Cobra Gold multinational military exercises. Haymond rejected the contention that Thailand has become closer to China at the expense of its relationship with the U.S.
“I’d anticipate every country in the region here has a more active engagement with China now than they did five years ago and certainly 10 years ago, because China is changing,” he said.
Thailand has a history of elections followed by unrest and coups, and deep divisions are already flaring ahead of this month’s poll. Haymond said the U.S. hopes the election proceeds smoothly and produces a strong and stable Thai government.
“Our goal is to avoid any constraints at all with working with our long time partner and ally here,” he said.
By Natnicha Chuwiruch