Thailand Tilts Away From the U.S.

Thailand Tilts Away From the U.S.

The military snubs its longtime ally to buy Chinese subs.

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Chinese sailors salute on top of a submarine in the Yellow Sea in 2012. Photo: China Daily/Reuters

June 30, 2015 | 7:33 p.m. ET

Thailand’s navy has long pushed to buy conventional submarines, with U.S. allies Germany or South Korea the expected suppliers. So the decision to buy Chinese boats, reported Friday by the Bangkok Post, suggests America’s oldest ally in Asia is edging toward Beijing.

This development is particularly concerning because the two countries’ militaries have a deep and abiding relationship. The U.S. helped Bangkok fight a communist insurgency and flew bombing missions from Thai air bases during the Vietnam War. Started more than 30 years ago, the annual Cobra Gold joint exercises are among the largest in the world. In 2003 President George W. Bush made Thailand officially a “major non-NATO ally,” a designation that brings the benefits reserved for the most trusted security partners.

The relationship started to sour after the May 2014 Thai coup, with Cobra Gold downgraded and other U.S. aid and contacts curtailed. Washington has called for an early return to democracy and warned against a politically motivated prosecution of deposed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

While this mirrors American condemnations of past coups, the generals bridled at the perceived interference. Thailand’s polarized politics makes it doubtful they will allow fresh elections soon, and a new constitution is expected to neuter elected politicians. The junta has tried to get Washington to mute its criticism by strengthening ties with Beijing, which is all too happy to lend support to fellow authoritarians.

Such signaling is one thing, but the sub deal would be a concrete step away from the U.S. alliance. The Thai navy would need a continuing relationship with Beijing to maintain and operate the boats.

Naturally Beijing has sweetened the deal to secure this opening. The three subs will cost $355 million each, including technology transfer and training, which makes them cheaper than the competition. And on paper at least they are more capable vessels, with advanced air-independent propulsion that allows them to stay submerged for extended periods.

If the submarine deal goes ahead, it will represent the breakdown of trust between the U.S. and Thailand. Clearly there has been a divergence of values as the Thai elite has turned against democracy. But the U.S. has exercised a stabilizing influence in the neighborhood and will continue to do so. Thailand’s generals need to think twice about squandering their most important alliance.


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