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Thai-Aus defence cooperation: Where to now?

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COMMENTS

25 October 2012 15:10

Dr John Blaxland is a Senior Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.

As Australia prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan, consideration is being given to how best position the Australian Defence Force afterwards. The focus needs to return to Australia's region and particularly to South East Asia and the island states of the Pacific. To help refresh and bolster security ties in the region, a more useful and mutually beneficial partner than Thailand would be hard to find.

Australia's military ties with Thailand began in the mid-20th century and have contributed quietly to enhanced regional security and stability through a range of bilateral mechanisms.

After the Second World War, when Australian prisoners of war went through the terrible ordeal of constructing the Thai-Burma Railway, Australia and Thailand forged close military links. Both were founding members of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation in 1954. Australia based F-86 Sabre aircraft at Ubon in Thailand's north-east in 1966, where they remained during the Vietnam War. Thai troops also fought alongside Australians during that war. 

The first of many Thais to graduate from Australian military training was Saiyud Kerdphol in 1959, who became Thai Supreme Commander and the architect of Thailand's successful counter-insurgency campaign in the 1970s and early 1980s. Thailand's Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn attended the Royal Military College in the 1970s, as did Surajit Shinawatra, a relative of the current Thai Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra. Shinawatra did his officer training in Australia in 1961 but died on operations in Thailand; his name is engraved on the Officer Cadet School Honour Roll in the grounds of Duntroon.

In recent decades, Australian military engagement with Thailand has spanned a range of activities including Joint Australia-Thailand Defence Coordination Committee meetings, high level reciprocal visits, navy-to-navy talks and exercises, and air force, special forces and peacekeeping exercises.

When Australia was desperate for an ASEAN partner to deploy into East Timor during the crisis in September 1999, Thailand was the first country to volunteer. General Peter Cosgrove's deputy in East Timor, General Songkitti Jaggabatra, went on to become the Royal Thai Armed Forces Chief of Defence Forces. His successor in East Timor and UNTAET Commander, General Boonsrang Niumpradit, also filled the chair as Thailand's CDF.

Since then, bilateral activities have continued, but with Australia distracted by wars in the Middle East, and Thailand facing its own domestic political and security challenges, insufficient attention has been paid to this important bilateral military relationship. Even so, seven Thai students are at the Australian Defence Force Academy with others at the Defence College at Weston Creek. The growing alumni network provides a convenient and useful connection with a wide range of influential military officers.

The Royal Thai Marine Corps is one of the best marine forces in South East Asia; it relies largely on US equipment and training, which makes it a useful partner to help Australia incorporate the new amphibious ships into the ADF's repertoire.

Australian planners and policy makers need to recognise that working with marine forces such as Thailand's to test and refine Australia's emerging capability will enhance regional cooperation at the same time. One way to achieve this would be to join Cobra Gold, the jointly led US-Thailand annual military exercise, which has an amphibious flavour though it also focuses on developing and testing regional humanitarian assistance and disaster relief capabilities. Australian regional security partners such as Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia already participate in this exercise. 

The Thais have no interest in mustering overt international support for their insurgency in the southernmost Malay Muslim-dominated provinces but they welcome ongoing training opportunities that ensure common professional standards as well as generating personal links that foster trust, respect and mutual understanding. Such training has helped enhance professional standards and reduce the incidence of damaging human rights violations in the insurgency affected southern provinces.

With further defence budget cuts in the offing, the danger is that short-sighted budget priorities will preclude reinvestment in such important regional relationships. It is to be hoped that the importance and utility of engaging with partners like Thailand will be seen as self evident.

Photo by Flickr user Jessica Eriksson.

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