A delegation of Thai military commanders travelled to China yesterday for talks on regional security and joint training amid Western reproach of the army's seizure of power in a coup last month.
General Surasak Kanjanarat, Thailand's de facto defence minister, 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 and called for a speedy return to democracy. 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," said Surasak, the head of the delegation. "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."
Surasak was due to meet Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong , deputy chief of the general staff of the People's Liberation Army.
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 governments have voiced disapproval of the coup, including the US, which scrapped joint military programmes days after the generals took power. Australia downgraded its ties with Thailand and has imposed a travel ban on junta leaders and cut defence cooperation, the toughest measures taken by a foreign government since the change of regime.
In contrast, the ambassadors of China and Vietnam in Bangkok met Thailand's armed forces chief 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 agreed to buy a 19 per cent stake in Thai telecoms group True Corp for US$881 million.
The 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 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 training exercises and visits by commanders.
While likely to find sympathy in China, Thailand's military is also concerned about perceptions elsewhere. Junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha called on 23 Thai ambassadors yesterday to make the case for the coup.
"Thailand is not able to be alone in this world and a great part of our income comes from exports which relies on international relationships," Prayuth said. "We can't make everyone agree with our actions but our duty is to create understanding."
Malaysia's defence minister is due next week to make the first visit by a foreign government minister since the coup. His trip showed "a good understanding of the Thai situation", the Thai military said in a statement.
The army stepped in after more than six months of debilitating and, at times, violent protests against Yingluck's government, saying it had to act to prevent more bloodshed.
China's People's Daily on Monday warned against aping Western-style democracy, pointing to Thailand as an example of the kind of chaos the system can bring.
Chinese tourists have flocked to Thailand in recent years but the recent turmoil has frightened many off. In the first five months of this year, the number of tourists from China fell 54.9 per cent from the same period a year earlier to 307,637, says the Association of Thai Travel Agents.