BANGKOK– Thailand and the United States pledged on Thursday to renew their military alliance for a new security era during a regional tour by Washington’s defense chief designed to counter China’s rise.
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the new joint defense declaration between the decades-old allies had “moved this alliance into the 21st century”.
The last time the two nations drafted such a joint declaration was in 1962, when the US promised to defend Thailand from “communist aggression”.
Although the new statement made no reference to China’s rising military power, Washington’s strategic tilt to the Asia-Pacific is meant to offset Beijing’s clout and maintain American influence there.
It supported “the United States’ enduring presence in the Asia-Pacific” and recognized Thailand as a “regional leader”.
Thailand’s support for the US presence will stabilise the Asia-Pacific region and make it prosper, the statement said.
Defence Minister ACM Sukumpol Suwanatat, who signed the declaration with Mr Panetta, denied that the defence alliance was a cooperation between Thailand and the US to contain the rising influence of China in the region.
“Both China and the United States are our friends who are equally treated by us,” he told reporters, adding that Thailand will soon have defence cooperation with China.
The new partnership also called for cooperation in humanitarian relief efforts and Washington’s support on the sale of its military equipment to modernise the Thai armed forces.
But Mr Panetta said the two countries did not discuss the use of U-tapao airport in Rayong for the military and for a humanitarian relief centre. The US had no plan to use the airport, he added.
His visit to Bangkok marked the first face-to-face talks between US and Thai defence ministers since 2008, and came days before President Barack Obama is due in the region for a tour of Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar.
The US suspended military aid to Thailand after a 2006 coup but reinstated it after elections in December 2007.
Mr Panetta will fly to Cambodia on Friday to join a meeting of defence ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that is expected to focus on territorial tensions with China and recent sectarian unrest in Myanmar.