Balancing act required as the US and China eye Southeast Asia
Top Chinese and US officials yesterday held separate meetings with the Thai defence minister as China seeks to join the set-up for a proposed regional disaster relief centre.
General Jing Zinyang, a top military commander from the People's Liberation Army, met with Sukhumpol Suwannatat, the Thai defence minister in the morning. Afterwards, Andrew Shapiro, a senior official of the US State Department, also held a meeting with Sukhumpol.
According to Sukhumphol, the Chinese delegation discussed the mooted set-up of a regional disaster relief centre for Southeast Asia and expressed China's interest in joining the project.
The proposal for the disaster relief centre has been initiated by Thailand other Southeast Asian nations after several major natural disasters in the region, including last year's massive floods in Thailand, in which dozens of provinces and industrial estates suffered heavy damage. According to Sukhumphol, Thailand would have no objection to the Chinese request. He added that the Chinese representatives did not mention the US's desire to use Thailand's U-Tapao air base for weather research, which has become a controversial issue here over the past few weeks.
The government plans to re-submit the US's proposal to the Cabinet for approval next Tuesday. It has already faced strong criticism over the issue from the opposition Democrat Party, which is urging the government to seek parliamentary approval for the US bid, since any decision to grant the US access to the base could affect Thai sovereignty and national security.
Under Article 190 (2) of the current Constitution, the government needs a green light from Parliament before signing any international agreement that could affect sovereighty and national security.
Following the Chinese delegation, Defence Minister Sukhumpol welcomed Andrew Shapiro of the US State Department, who paid a courtesy call. However, the defense minister said there was no further discussion on the US's bid to use U-Tapao.
The visits by the Chinese and US officials underline the increasingly delicate balance Thailand faces as Southeast Asia becomes a crucial region in global geo-politics.
While Sukhumpol says the US has not pressured Thailand into accepting the weather research project by its National Aeronautics and Space Agency (Nasa), it's clear that the US is serious about repositioning itself strategically in this part of the world, where Chinese hegemony has risen in the past several decades.
The proposal to use U-Tapao base, albeit for non-military purposes at this stage, has rekindled memories of America's previous role in the region during the years of the Cold War and the Vietnam War.
China is not the only country wary of US military expansion in Asia; India, another regional superpower, is also increasingly watchful of US actions.
Due to its central geographic location in Southeast Asia, Thailand will inevitably face a big challenge on how to strategically balance its interests amid the competing presence of superpower nations.
Yesterday, General Jing Zinyang also held a meeting with General Prayut Chan-o-cha, the Thai Army commander-in-chief. The Chinese delegation was reassured that Thailand will not allow foreign countries, including the US, to bring in military and related equipment, or set up bases in the country. In fact, it's in Thailand's best interest to ensure that neither China nor the US is overly represented in terms of the country's strategic position, or else the country could end up the loser.