China and Thailand will conduct their first joint military air exercise with 180 Chinese officers and top pilots starting on November 12 at a Thai base that the US Air Force used for bombing missions over Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam War.
The exercise, dubbed Falcon Strike, is the latest sign that Bangkok, the US’s strongest ally in the region for decades, is hedging its bets between Washington and Beijing.
“For years, indeed decades, this cooperation would have been not only politically unthinkable, but technically impossible, as the [Royal Thai Air Force] was almost wholly dependent on the US, while China’s [support] was significantly less advanced,” said Benjamin Zawacki, a US analyst who is writing a book on the US-Thai-China axis.
“For the US, it spells another zero-sum loss to an engaged and strategic China.”
Beijing has both engaged and intimidated the nations to its south,” he said.
China has territorial claims to vital shipping lanes and natural resources in the South China Sea but its president, Xi Jinping, has been on a charm offensive across Southeast Asia.
He met leaders of Vietnam, Singapore and Taiwan recently.
Zawacki said China was more than willing to work with the authoritarian government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former army general who took power in a coup in May 2014.
Zawacki said Washington was unwilling to see Thailand as geopolitically important. “The US has not had a coherent policy in either Thailand or Southeast Asia as a whole for two decades, while the Chinese see and treat it as their ‘near abroad’.”
China and Thailand will conduct Exercise Falcon Strike over more than two weeks at air base near Nakhon Ratchasima.
Altogether 180 Chinese officers and pilots, who will be led by a deputy chief-of-staff, will participate in the exercise, which will coincide with the 40th anniversary of Thai-Chinese diplomatic relations, when Thailand ditched its allegiance to Taiwan.
Falcon Strike was a year in preparation between the Thai and Chinese air forces. They held a warm-up exercise last November with five Chinese officers boarding a Thai Gripen in an observation mission, followed by an observation trip by Thai officers onboard China’s J-10 and SU-27 aircraft in May.
During the Vietnam War, 4,500 US Air Force personnel launched warplanes from the air base.
Nowadays, the US and Thailand use the base together during Cope Tiger, one of the Pentagon’s annual multinational exercises with regional forces.
But military cooperation has been scaled back since last year’s coup.