Thailand seeks closer relations with Russia as US ties cool

Russian National Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev (left) calling on Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha this month. Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev visited Thailand last April.
Russian National Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev (left) calling on Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha this month. Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev visited Thailand last April.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Bangkok also exploring arms deal options as Moscow seeks greater influence in Asia

BANGKOK • Thailand is pursuing closer ties and possible arms deals with Russia, with relations between Thailand and its traditional partner, the United States, cooling in the wake of a May 2014 coup.

Next week, two Thai deputy prime ministers will travel to Russia, just weeks after a visit to Bangkok by the powerful head of Russia's security council, Mr Nikolai Patrushev.

On the table, officials from both countries say, are wide-ranging talks on trade and security cooperation, as Russia seeks to develop its position as an Asian power.

Most attention has been focused on Thailand's warming ties with China, including talks on a massive rail project and the possible purchase of Chinese-made submarines.

But Russia appears keen to compete for Thailand's attention. In the last 18 months, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has met three times with Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev, who visited Thailand in April last year, said Russian Ambassador to Thailand Kirill Barsky.

The big prize is in defence, which is also of most strategic concern to the US. Thailand served as a staging ground for American forces during the Vietnam War, and the Pentagon values its strategic access to the South-east Asian nation's airfields and ports. But for a second straight year, the United States has scaled back regional military exercises, known as "Cobra Gold", which Thailand hosted earlier this month.

Thai media has reported that Thailand is seeking to buy dozens of Russian T-90 tanks to replace part of its ageing US-made fleet.

Thai Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said no decision has been made on the tanks, but US restrictions on the sale of arms to the military-ruled country means Thailand needs to shop elsewhere for the roughly 50 tanks it needs.

Thailand is on course to sign an agreement with Russia covering counter-terrorism and is looking to buy Russian hardware, such as helicopters, for disaster response, General Prawit said, although he asserted that Thailand is "equally good" to China, Russia and the US.

Russia has made it clear that its approach to Thailand is part of a broader push for Asian influence, although not necessarily at the expense of the US.

Mr Matthew Sussex, a Russia expert at the Australian National University, said any deal on tanks "will certainly make Washington sit up and take notice".

Russia already refuels its nuclear-capable bombers in Vietnam and is probing South-east Asia for a possible strategic "toehold", he said.

Even if they remain all talk, warming Thai-Russian relations will still worry the United States, said Mr Sussex. "The fact that the Thai government is starting to say 'Well, you know, what about the Russians?' sends pretty worrying signs to (the US)."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 21, 2016, with the headline 'Thailand seeks closer relations with Russia as US ties cool'. Print Edition | Subscribe