BANGKOK (REUTERS) - A delegation of Thai military commanders travelled to China on Wednesday for talks on regional security and joint training exercises amid Western unease over the Thai army's seizure of power in a coup last month.
General Surasak Kanjanarat, deputy permanent secretary for defence, said the meeting was aimed at mapping out "future plans of action" with the Chinese army, one of its oldest regional allies. He did not elaborate on the plans.
The bid by Thailand's military rulers to strengthen ties with China comes after Western powers, including old ally the United States, criticised the May 22 coup. The junta has said it has China's support.
"This meeting will be to talk about ties ... and future plans of action and exchange views on regional security," General Surasak, the head of the delegation, told reporters. "We will discuss in which areas we could increase military training. We will not talk about the situation in Thailand because it is not relevant."
Gen Surasak was due to meet the deputy chief-of-staff of the China's army, Lieutenant-General Wang Guanzhong.
The coup was the latest convulsion in a decade-long conflict between the Bangkok-based royalist establishment and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his allies. The ousted government had been headed by the self-exiled, former telecommunications tycoon's sister, Yingluck Shinawatra.
Several foreign government have voiced disapproval of the coup, including the United States, which scrapped joint military programmes days after the generals took power.
In contrast, Thailand's armed forces chief met China's and Vietnam's ambassadors in Bangkok last week in what the junta said was a show of support.
On Monday, in the first major corporate deal since the coup, state-owned China Mobile Ltd agreed to buy a 19 per cent stake in Thai telecoms group True Corp for US$881 million.
The Thai regime's engagement with China comes at a critical time for the United States, which is shoring up ties with Asian allies and building stronger relationships with countries like Vietnam and Myanmar to counter China's growing assertiveness. Perhaps with that over-arching strategy in mind, the US response to Thailand's coup has, for now anyway, been limited to the suspension of about US$3.5 million in military aid and the cancellation of various training exercises and visits by commanders.
For a decade, Thailand has been caught up in a political tug of war between supporters of Thaksin in the north and northeast and middle-class Bangkok residents aligned with the royalist establishment. Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 coup and has lived abroad since 2008 to avoid a corruption sentence. He remains hugely popular among rural voters.
The army stepped in after more than six months of debilitating protests against Ms Yingluck's government saying it had to act to prevent bloodshed.
China's top newspaper on Monday warned against aping Western-style democracy, pointing to Thailand as an example of the kind of chaos the system can bring.
As part of the Thai junta's reform plans, it has moved to sideline civil servants and senior police officers seen as loyal to Thaksin in what his supporters see as part of a bid by the establishment to permanently exclude him from politics. The junta has imposed draconian controls since taking control. More than 300 academics, journalists, activists and politicians, a disproportionate number of them aligned to Thaksin, have been rounded up by the military. The junta has also banned political gatherings of more than five people and imposed a nationwide curfew, now running from midnight to 4 am.
However, over the past week, it has lifted the curfew in 10 holiday destinations to help boost tourism, which accounts for about 10 per cent of the economy. On Tuesday, it lifted it in a further 20 provinces but kept it in Bangkok.
Chinese tourists have flocked to Thailand in recent years, overtaking the number of visitors from the United States and Europe though the recent turmoil has frightened many of them off. In the first five months of 2014, the number of tourists from China plunged 54.9 per cent from the same period a year earlier to 307,637, according to the Association of Thai Travel Agents). Chinese tourists, including visitors for business meetings and conferences, accounted for 26 per cent of total passenger arrivals in those months.