WikiLeaks: Thais not suspicious of growing Chinese powerBy Bangkok Pundit Apr 11, 2011 11:59PM UTC
Back when BP summarized that one issue that BP was looking forward to reading from the WikiLeaks’s cables was “Cables on US views on Sino-Thai relations particularly on the military exercises”. The reason is that BP has blogged on the Sino-Thai relationship particularly in light of Thailand’s close relationship with the US – see here, here, here, and here, and the Sino-Thai relationship is interesting on a few different other levels.
The cable can be viewed from here. The title “SUBJECT: THAI MFA NOT SUSPICIOUS OF GROWING CHINESE POWER AND INFLUENCE – BUT SOUTH CHINA SEA DISPUTES HAVE IMPACT”:
¶1. (C) Summary. According to the Thai MFA Director of Chinese Affairs, Thailand agreed that increased transparency of Chinese military intentions would help regional stability, but Thailand had no reason to be concerned with growing Chinese military power and accepted as natural China’s growing influence in Southeast Asia. Due to an absence any territorial disputes to hold back relations, Thailand and China had grown closer in recent years. Despite closer ties in all areas including between the two nations’ militaries, however, the RTG was reluctant to expand rapidly joint exercises;the aggressive Chinese diplomatic response to the Philippines’ filing under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and a sense of ASEAN solidarity did affect Thai thinking in this regard. End Summary.
¶2. (C) Comment. MFA Director of Chinese Affairs Nathapol Khantahiran was pleasant but direct in describing the growing role for China in Southeast Asia and a decline in the United States’ stature and influence in the region. His comments in this regard are reminiscent of the bracing evaluation 2008 Capstone participants heard at the Thai National Defense University. In contrast, other Thai interlocutors, particularly in the military, have tended to be less open in discussing with U.S. officials Thailand’s growing relations with China. This reluctance may be attributed to a desire not to discuss directly what could be considered a sensitive issue with a close ally. His comments regarding an NSC decision to defer a large scale maritime exercise with China at a time when China is using aggressive diplomacy against fellow ASEAN countries regarding claims in the South China Sea, specifically mentioning ASEAN solidarity, are intriguing, particularly given recent the joint Malaysian-Vietnamese UNCLOS filing. End comment.
CHINESE MILITARY GROWTH NOT WORRISOME FOR THAI
¶3. (C) We met May 6 with MFA Director of Chinese Affairs Nathapol Khantahiran to discuss reftel Defense Department report on China. Nathapol acknowledged the fast growth in the military power of China but stated that the Thai government had no reason to be suspicious of Chinese military intentions and faced no territorial disputes (such as the South China Sea). As the Chinese economy depended on natural resources from Africa and Asia, its military growth reflected the need to maintain secure sea transportation routes to Africa, primarily the Malacca Strait and the Sunda and Lombok Straits in Indonesia. As such, the RTG was not suspicious.
¶4. (C) With China’s growing military strength, the Thai government was watching with great interest how the Chinese government would apply its greater capabilities, particularly in relation to piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea.
CHINESE-THAI RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPING RAPIDLY
¶5. (C) The overall Thai-Chinese relationship had developed rapidly since official relations had been established in 1975. In contrast to many other ASEAN nations, territorial disputes did not negatively impact Thailand’s relations with China, Nathapol said. China had made many positive actions in Asia since establishing diplomatic relations with Thailand and other countries in the 1970s. As such, Chinese influence in the region had significantly grown. In contrast, Nathapol claimed that the U.S. government had since the end of the Cold War lagged in engaging Southeast Asia. For example, the focus of U.S. military engagement had shifted to other regions, while China had made significant strides in gaining influence. Nathapol said both U.S. “soft” and “hard” powehad diminished and specifically described losses in economic, political, and cultural power.
¶6. (C) Despite Thailand and China not having territorial disputes, Nathapol raised the South China Sea as a potential area of concern for Thailand. PTT, the Thai state-owned oil and gas company, had received a concession from the Philippine government in the South China Sea. It was unclear how disputes regarding overlapping claims there would affect the concession and Chinese-Thai relations.
CHINESE-THAI MILITARY ENGAGEMENT GROWING
¶7. (C) Nathapol said that ASEAN as whole had turned down a Chinese proposal to conduct joint training but that Thai-Chinese military engagement was expanding. Thailand and China had conducted their first joint exercise in 2005 with a humanitarian exercise focused on naval search and rescue techniques. This exercise commemorated the thirtieth anniversary of the establishment of Thai-Chinese relations. In recent years, the mil-mil relationship had expanded via a joint counter-terrorism exercise called “Strike” held in Guangzhou, China in 2007 with approximately twenty Thai special forces troops, Nathapol said. The exercise was repeated in 2008 when China sent special forces troops to Chiang Mai, Thailand to practice counter-terrorism operations. Nathapol said the Thai contingent in 2008 was of similar scale to that in 2007.
¶8. (C) Reiterating comments we had heard from military sources, Nathapol said the Chinese military was pressing for larger scale exercises with the Thai that would expand beyond special forces. One Chinese proposal had been to conduct a joint Marine exercise along Thailand’s eastern seaboard in May this year. The Thai government, however, was unsure of the appropriate path to take in regard to this proposal. The Thai National Security Council on May 1 convened a meeting to determine the RTG response to the Chinese initiative. The aggressive Chinese diplomatic response to the Philippines’ UNCLOS declaration weighed on the minds of the Thai officials, Nathapol noted, and there was concern of a negative reaction from other ASEAN members were Thailand to proceed with a large-scale maritime exercise at the same time fellow ASEAN members were pressured by China over maritime claims. Nathapol told us it was likely that the RTG would go slow in expanding the mil-mil relationship and would postpone the Marine exercise to 2010. Thailand would also limit the scale of the event.
¶9. (C) Nathapol told us that Thailand was reluctant to increase quickly the scale of its military relationship with China because the RTG did not want to be seen as out in front of other ASEAN nations in expanding relations with China.
CHINA MAIN ACTOR FOR REGION IN FINANCIAL CRISIS
¶10. (C) Turning to economics, Nathapol described China as the ”main actor” in leading efforts to try to buffer Asia from the effects of the current economic downturn. We replied that the drop in Chinese imports, including from Thailand, over the past six months had disproven this early hope. As it turned out, Thailand’s exports to China dropped in concert with lower exports to the U.S., in part because many Thai exports are intermediate goods intended for re-export to the U.S. Nathapol said Beijing would definitely approach Asian nations for support on issues of concern to China, as the Chinese would certainly want something back for their efforts now to deal with the crisis. Nathapol acknowledged this could lead to difficulty for the Thai government, possibly concerning the question of Taiwan, but exclaimed, “What can Thailand do?”
¶11. (C) In recognition of the importance that China played in the region, Nathapol said that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva planned to visit Hong Kong in May and hoped to make an official visit to Beijing at the end of June.
BP: Sino-Thai relations have been gradually improving over the last 6-7 years, but regardless of government things do not seem to change that much…