By Max Constant
Junta-led Thailand has become the first country to jump on a Chinese proposal to hold military drills with Southeast Asian nations allegedly aimed at easing tensions in the disputed South China Sea, local media reported Tuesday.
Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, a key junta member and deputy prime minister, said, “we agree to go ahead with the drills, if other countries in the region also agree to take part.”
The call for joint military drills was launched by Chinese defense minister, Gen. Chang Wanquan, during a China-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Defense Ministers’ Meeting last week in Vientiane, Laos.
Chang had also criticized the United States for saying that China is threatening the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea through its navy vessels and construction and land reclamation activities on the Spratly Islands, where several ASEAN countries have claims.
“President [Barack] Obama should stop playing up the issue of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, as it has never been a problem,” Chinese state media quoted him as saying.
He underlined that more than 100,000 vessels pass through the waters annually “and none has claimed to have encountered any hindrance, trouble or danger”.
China considers almost all of the maritime area its territory, but the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam — all ASEAN countries — and Taiwan also have overlapping claims in the Spratly or Paracel archipelagos. The waters around these groups of islands are believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits.
Apart from Thailand, none of the nine other ASEAN members have yet expressed willingness to participate in the proposed military drills.
Since Thai generals overthrew an elected government and seized power in a May 2014 coup, Bangkok has made overtures to China, America’s rival for hegemony in the region.
Analysts have remarked on a shift in Thailand’s foreign policy amid condemnation of the coup, followed by a suspension of high level visits to the kingdom by European Union or U.S. representatives.
At the end of this month, Thailand is set to join a middle-scale naval exercise with Chinese warships.
Annual “Cobra Gold” war games organized by Thailand and the U.S. on Thai soil, however, remain the largest joint military exercise in Asia, with the involvement of more than 8,500 troops including those from other Asian countries.
Last year, the number of U.S. troops participating in the exercise was cut down to 3,600, compared to 4,300 in 2014, to show disapproval for the coup.
In December the U.S. ambassador to Thailand, Glyn Davies, told reporters that Washington welcomed good relations between its oldest treaty ally in the region and China, insisting that the U.S. had not “lost” Thailand.