BANGKOK • The Thai military has held an air show with China 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 coup last year.
Five Thai and Chinese military aircraft yesterday performed aerobatic demonstrations for the assembled media at the Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base, around 260km north-east of the capital Bangkok.
Tomorrow, Chinese and Thai air forces will start their first joint exercises, over two days, that China has said are aimed at increasing "mutual trust and friendship".
Since their coup in May last year, Thailand's generals have tried to counterbalance the country's ties with the US while launching a charm offensive towards their giant neighbour to the north.
FRIENDS WITH EVERYONE
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.
MAJOR-GENERAL WERACHON SUKHONDHAPATIPAK, Thailand's deputy government spokesman
"Thailand has been pushing for this for quite some time," said Air Marshal Bhanupong Seyayongka, director of operations for the Royal Thai Air Force. "We have 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 Beijing and Bangkok include a Thai Navy plan 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.
Last week, the United Nations refugee agency protested when Thailand deported two registered refugees to China, even though they had been accepted by Canada.
Yesterday, the issue was played down by Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha who said the duo were deported at Beijing's request after they entered Thailand illegally.
"They asked us to send them back and we had to send (them) according to procedure," Mr Prayut said, alluding to China.
But senior Thai government officials say the country has not turned 180 degrees towards China.
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," he said.
China has rattled nerves in South- east Asia with its increasingly assertive acts and stake of claim in the potentially resource-rich South China Sea in which several other countries have competing claims.