By AP and published by US News & World Report plus Matichon
US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin met with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha today (June 13) as part of an effort to strengthen what Austin says is Washington’s “unparalleled network of alliances and partnerships” in the region.
Prayut, who is also defence minister, also met Austin last month in Washington. Thailand and the United States are longtime military allies, despite a cooling of relations after the 2014 military coup that brought former army commander Prayut to power.
A US Defence Department statement said Austin’s visit, his first to Thailand as defence secretary, is an important step toward modernising the US-Thai alliance and expanding the depth and breadth of military cooperation.
Tensions between the US and China have been growing in part over Beijing’s claims to Taiwan and much of the South China Sea, and its increasing power and influence in the region.
Thai media reported that Prayut would likely discuss arms procurement with Austin, including of F-35 fighter aircraft.
Matichon newspaper quoted the Thai Defence Ministry’s spokesman Gen. Kongcheep Tantravanich as saying that in an exchange of views on regional security, particularly South China Sea and Myanmar, Prayut had said Thailand supported compliance with international law and peaceful resolution of these problems.
Prayut reconfirmed Asean’s stance on these issues while also mentioning that Thailand had continuously provided assistance to Myanmar refugees in accordance with humanitarian principles but also did not want to trigger unwanted conflicts in the region.
In a speech Saturday at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue defence summit in Singapore, Austin said China’s “steady increase in provocative and destabilising military activity near Taiwan” threatens to undermine the region’s security and prosperity.
He said he was proud that Washington’s “unparalleled network of alliances and partnerships has only deepened” in the past year.
China’s defence minister, Gen. Wei Fenghe, said at the same conference that the US is trying to turn Southeast Asian countries against Beijing and is seeking to advance its own interests “under the guise of multilateralism.”
China over the past decade has been trying to extend its influence in Southeast Asia, both through aid and investment, including its “Belt and Road” infrastructure projects and use of its navy and other maritime resources to press its claims to vast areas of the South China Sea.
Thailand and the United States were close allies during the Vietnam War, and in 2003, Washington designated Thailand a major non-Nato ally, one of about 20 worldwide.
Such status means the US regards Thailand as a strategic partner, and facilitates some aspects of military assistance and cooperation. The annual multinational Cobra Gold military exercise, one of the world’s biggest, is hosted in Thailand in partnership with the United States.
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha during a welcoming ceremony for him at the Defence Ministry today. Photos: Matichon