Webinar on “Thailand’s Defence Diplomacy with China”

In this webinar, Dr Paul Chambers examined Thailand’s defence diplomacy with China in terms of weapons sourcing, joint military exercises and military officer education.


Friday, 16 October 2020 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute held a webinar with the support of Konrad Adenauer Stiftung that featured Dr Paul Chambers discussing Thailand’s Defence Diplomacy with China to an audience of 84 from Singapore and overseas. An expert in the civil-military relations of Southeast Asia and democratisation in Thailand, Dr Chambers is currently a Lecturer and Special Advisor on International Relations at the Center of ASEAN Community Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, Naresuan University, Phitsanulok, Thailand. 

Dr Paul Chambers
Dr Paul Chambers examined Thailand’s defence diplomacy with China in terms of weapons sourcing, joint military exercises and military officer education. Mr Lye Liang Fook moderated the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Describing Thailand as being “caught in the middle” in a “geopolitical jousting match between China and the United States”, Dr Chambers explained how Thailand has increasingly engaged in military-to-military diplomacy with China since 2014 while rebalancing away from the United States. However, Thailand has also sought to avoid becoming too dependent on the Chinese for arms procurements, and has resumed the purchase of U.S. military hardware in 2017, in pursuit of what Dr Chambers called a “finessed omni-directional foreign policy”. 

Dr Chambers stated that the pursuit of “omni-directionality” has been a perennial theme for Thailand, especially after the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Vietnam in 1975 and following the end of the Cold War. While Thailand generally enjoyed close relations with the United States in the second half of the 20th century, the domestic turbulence and military coups that has embroiled Thailand for the past two decades has caused a strain in the bilateral relationship. The coups also meant that U.S. military assistance to Thailand was disrupted due to American legal restrictions. This coincided with the period of China’s growing regional influence, prompting Thailand to turn to its giant Asian neighbour for military gear. 

In particular, China became a dominant player in equipping the Royal Thai Navy, including offering three submarines and an amphibious Landing Platform Dock for sale. While one submarine has been acquired, the purchase of the remaining two has been delayed as a result of public discontent over the price tag, particularly amidst an economic downturn. In contrast, the U.S. still retains its advantage in military sales to the Royal Thai Air Force, while the Royal Thai Army has relied on both countries for the supply of infantry vehicular assets. For instance, the army recently ordered 130 M-1126 Stryker infantry carrier vehicles from the U.S. to replace the Chinese VN-1 infantry fighting vehicles in its inventory. 

Dr Chambers identified cost concerns as a significant factor motivating Thai military officials’ increasing preference for Chinese hardware. In addition, China also offers favourable financing terms without imposing any human rights or democracy-related conditionality requirements. This enables Thailand to keep up militarily with its Southeast Asian neighbours in a more cost-effective manner. Additionally, Dr Chambers outlined how dealing with the Chinese instead of the Americans opens up the potential for officials to receive kickbacks through the procurement process from agents and suppliers. 

Dr Chambers also discussed how China’s military-to-military cooperation with Thailand has grown, although they remain less extensive than the military exercises between the U.S. and Thailand, which includes the long-running annual Cobra Gold and Cope Tiger exercises. However, while the U.S. still benefits from the “well-integrated and well-organised” cooperation with Thailand fostered over decades of exchanges, it is gradually losing its edge in terms of military education. This was partly the result of the 2014 coup which prompted the Americans to bar Thai participants from the U.S. International Military Education and Training (IMET) and the Foreign Military Financing (FNF) programmes. As a consequence, Thai soldiers started attending Chinese defence academies, enabling China to become the second most important destination for Thai military education abroad. While Thai military officials are now able to resume their studies at U.S. military academies since the lifting of the IMET ban by the Trump administration in 2017, China today is responsible for providing military education to a significant portion of Thai cadets, which Dr Chambers estimated to be roughly half the number of those studying in American academies. 

Dr Chambers concluded that China has indeed made “rapid strides” in bolstering its defence diplomacy with Thailand, especially in terms of military procurement, cooperation and education. However, Thailand has also sought to diversify the sources fulfilling its military and security needs. Dr Chambers predicted that Thailand will continue this policy of “strategic balancing” and keeping its foreign policy and defence diplomacy omni-directional. In the ensuing Q&A session, he fielded topics ranging from the possible construction of a canal across the Kra Isthmus, the U.S.-China dynamics and its impact on Thailand’s foreign policy, the on-going pro-democracy protests in Thailand on relations with China to Thailand’s efforts to secure access to a Covid-19 vaccine.

Over 80 participants attended the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)