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Thailand's Military Moves Closer To China

China's Defense Minister Chang Wanquan, left, and Thailand's Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan walk during a ceremony at the Ministry of Defense in Bangkok, Thailand on Friday.
Sakchai Lalit
China's Defense Minister Chang Wanquan, left, and Thailand's Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan walk during a ceremony at the Ministry of Defense in Bangkok, Thailand on Friday.

Updated at 12:55 p.m. ET

Thailand's junta — smarting over U.S. criticism of last year's coup that ousted an elected government — has announced that it will strengthen military ties with China over the next five years.

An agreement with Beijing was announced during a two-day visit to Bangkok by China's defense minister, Chang Wanquan, reports Michael Sullivan. The two sides say they'll increase cooperation in intelligence-gathering and fighting transnational crime.

The Bangkok Post says: "China's Defense Minister Chang Wanquan also took pains to stress that Beijing has no plans to 'interfere' with Thailand's military regime, something the Thai government feels its long-time ally, the United States, did last month during the visit of a high-ranking diplomat."

The high-ranking diplomat in question, Daniel Russel, is the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs. Russel sparked the ire of Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha's government last month with a speech at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University that criticized the government's crackdown on free expression and called for an end to martial law, which has been in force since the May coup.

"I'll be blunt here," Russel told the audience at Chulalongkorn, one of Thailand's most prestigious universities. "When an elected leader is deposed, impeached by the authorities that implemented the coup, and then targeted with criminal charges while basic democratic processes and institutions are interrupted, the international community is left with the impression that these steps could be politically driven."

The remarks referred to the impeachment of twice-elected former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose government was ousted in the May putsch. Her impeachment came months after she was ousted and living in self-imposed exile.

After the speech, Thailand's deputy foreign minister summoned the U.S. embassy's charge d'affaires, W. Patrick Murphy, to express his concern over "a wound that the U.S. inflicted on Thai people."

Thailand's move is viewed as a possible shift away from Washington, even as the U.S. has hoped to pivot toward Asia.

The two countries are viewed as strong allies and closely cooperated during the Vietnam War, despite Thailand's revolving door of military governments. Even so, an annual joint military exercise between the two countries, known as Cobra Gold,is scheduled to go ahead as planned on Feb. 9, although Washington has scaled back the scope of it since the May 22 coup.

On Thursday in Washington, U.S. State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said the U.S. would not fully reactivate its military alliance with Thailand until there has been a "full restoration both of the institutions of governance and justice as well as the full restoration of a duly democratically elected civilian government."

In addition to moving closer to China, Thailand's new leadership has also sought closer ties with neighboring Myanmar, which has its own history of military governments.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.