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China Sends in the Marines to Thailand

China Sends in the Marines to Thailand

By Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- China is expanding its military reach by sending, for the first time, the Marine Corps of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to train with another country during an October 26-November 14 exercise with Thailand.

The U.S. and other nations will be eyeing the activity in the Gulf of Thailand in and around the Sattahip Naval Base, near Bangkok, as China seeks to secure its access south to strategic sea lanes.

The Blue Assault-2010 joint training exercise is much smaller than America's 29 annual Cobra Gold military drills which, among several sites, also includes Sattahip Naval Base, where Thailand's Marine Corps is headquartered at Camp Samaesan.

This is the first time China's marines are training with another country, according to the Chinese National Defense Ministry, though other PLA forces have trained with foreigners.

During Cobra Gold, U.S. Marines backed by naval and air support, routinely assault a beach in southern Thailand along with the Royal Thai Marine Corps, creating one of the most vital joint training exercises for Thai forces.

Washington and Bangkok are non-NATO military allies.

During the U.S.-Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s, Thailand allowed its territory to be used by America to launch massive aerial bombardments against Vietnam and Laos, where Thai ground forces also fought alongside U.S. troops.

After regarding China as a sinister, subversive, communist foe during the Cold War years, relations between Bangkok and Beijing have steadily improved in the past 30 years.

Some analysts claim Thailand is intentionally balancing its military and financial dependence on the U.S. by nurturing better relations with China.

Other analysts say relations between Beijing and Bangkok have more to do with the geographical and commercial closeness of Thailand and China, which are separated by tiny communist Laos.

China wants to diversify its southern routes, especially from landlocked Yunnan province, because China's main southeastern sea port is Hong Kong which is not convenient for some imports and exports.

If China can cut straight south across Laos into Thailand, then the Chinese would gain faster access via Thailand's modern transport links to Bangkok and the Gulf of Thailand, and speed travel further south to Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, and the southernmost waters of the resource-rich South China Sea.

China is also trying to upgrade a southern route from Yunnan province through Burma, also known as Myanmar, which opens to Burmese ports along the Bay of Bengal near Calcutta and eastern India, leading to the South Asian island of Sri Lanka and the Indian Ocean.

"It is the common interests of China and other countries to maintain freedom and security of navigation in the region," said Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of the General Staff of the People's Liberation Army.

Mr. Ma, however, did not specify the China-Thailand exercise during his keynote speech on October 22 in the Chinese city of Xiangshan where a three-day forum of military scholars discussed the "Evolution of International Strategic Configuration and Asia-Pacific Security," organized by the China Association for Military Science.

The amphibious operation by China with the Royal Thai Marine Corps may involved about 135 marines from each country, according to sketchy reports about the relatively unpublicized military training.

It has attracted attention on the Southeast Asian island of Singapore, which is a staunch U.S. military partner for regional security, especially for shipping lanes.

"Amphibious military capabilities have application in disaster relief and humanitarian operations, but they are designed mainly for complex combat assault missions launched from the sea," Singapore's Straits Times reported, describing the Thailand-China military exercise.

"In China's case, the capability would be particularly important in a full-scale conflict with Taiwan."

In 1949, when China's Communist leader Mao Zedong achieved victory on the mainland, his enemy -- Chinese Kuomintang military forces led by corrupt U.S.-backed Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek -- retreated to the island of Taiwan after looting much of China's antiquities and other treasures.

China opposes independence for Taiwan, and has vowed to eventually absorb the island which lies across a 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait.

Washington insists it will defend Taipei against any aggression, and has sold weapons worth billions of dollars to the island.

"The United States also has concerns in Asia about threats to peace and stability in the East China Sea, South China Sea, and over terrorist threats in Southeast Asia, humanitarian crises, and security for sea lines of communication, particularly through the Straits of Malacca," which separate Singapore and Indonesia, said a Congressional Research Service report titled, "Guam: U.S. Defense Deployments," issued in 2009 for members and committees of Congress.

China's drill with the Royal Thai Marine Corps begins just after the end of a 15-day counter-terrorism training exercise between Thai and Chinese Special Forces in China's southern city of Guilin.

"The two armies have been holding annual joint Special Forces exercises since 2007," the Bangkok Post said.

"The first naval exercise between China and Thailand took place in December 2005 in the Gulf of Thailand and was called China-Thailand Friendship 2005."

Many Thais trace their families' ancestors to China, and are known here as Sino-Thais, enjoying prominent and wealthy positions in Bangkok's political and financial circles.

As a result, Thailand is comfortable with improving its relations with China, while maintaining close ties with the U.S., in tactics Bangkok perceives as diplomatic, profitable and pragmatic.

China's snuggling up to Thailand was especially noticeable after the Thai military seized power in a bloodless 2006 coup, when Beijing immediately welcomed Thailand's new junta.

"A central element of Bangkok's hedging strategy is to keep its military alliance with the United States well lubricated, while at the same time expanding defense ties with China," Dr. Ian Storey, a Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, wrote in 2008.

"Given the cozy relationship that has developed between Thailand and China over the past few decades, it is unsurprising that military-security links are among China's most well-developed in the region -- second only to Burma, China's quasi-ally," Dr. Storey said.

"The number of Thai military officers attending educational courses at the National Defense University in Beijing has increased since 2001, as has the number of PLA officers studying at Thai military academies. The purpose of these courses is to enhance understanding of each other's strategic perspectives, and to improve language skills for future cooperative activities."


Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. His web page is

(Copyright 2010 Richard S Ehrlich)

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