China, Thailand joint air force exercise highlights warming ties

China's J-10 fighter jets perform during a media demonstration at the Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base.
China's J-10 fighter jets perform during a media demonstration at the Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base.PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (REUTERS) - Thailand's military held an air show with China on Tuesday (Nov 24) ahead of joint manoeuvres in a sign of warming ties, but Thailand said it was not distancing itself from the United States which downgraded their military relationship following a 2014 coup.

Five Thai and Chinese military planes performed aerobatic demonstrations for assembled media, flying some 900m above ground at the Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base, around 260km northeast of Bangkok.

On Thursday (Nov 26) and Friday (Nov 27), Chinese and Thai air forces will conduct their first joint exercises that China has said are aimed at increasing "mutual trust and friendship."

Since a May 2014 coup, Thailand's military generals have sought to counterbalance the country's ties with Washington and launched a charm offensive toward their neighbour to the north.

"Thailand has been pushing for this for quite some time,"Air Marshal Bhanupong Seyayongka, director of operations for the Royal Thai Air Force, told Reuters. "We've been studying this plan for a long time."

The US was critical of the coup and downgraded joint military exercises and training with Thailand saying they would be restored once a general election is held.

Recent deals between China and Thailand include a plan by Thailand's navy to buy submarines worth US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion) from China and an ambitious project to build rail links from southern China through Laos to Thailand.

Chinese tourism to Thailand is expected to be a record 7 million this year, up from 4.63 million last year, despite a deadly bomb attack at a major tourist spot in Bangkok in August.

But senior Thai government officials say Thailand has not turned 180 degrees toward China, despite a chill in ties between Bangkok and Washington following the 2014 coup.

Major-General Werachon Sukhondhapatipak, deputy government spokesman, said Thailand's foreign policy was to be friends with everyone, including the US.

"We are not trying to use China to counter the US. Our foreign policy is to have no enemies and to be friends with everyone," Werachon told Reuters.

Bhanupong said Thailand would continue military exercises with the US. "We will definitely keep practicing with the US as well,"Bhanupong said.

China has rattled nerves in Southeast Asia with its increasingly bold acts in the South China Sea, where China, Vietnam, The Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei all have competing territorial claims.