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.
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, 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 $1 billion worth of Chinese-made submarines.
But Russia appears keen to compete for Thailand’s attention.
In the last 18 months, Thai junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has met three times with Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev, who visited Thailand in April 2015, the Russian ambassador to Thailand, Kirill Barsky, said. Prayuth will travel to Russia in May for a meeting between Russia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The big prize of talks — and of most strategic concern to the United States — is in defense.
Thailand served as a staging ground for American forces during the Vietnam War, and the Pentagon values its strategic access to the Southeast Asian nation’s airfields and ports. But for a second straight year, the United States scaled back regional military exercises, known as “Cobra Gold,” which Thailand hosted earlier this month.
Thai media have reported that Thailand is seeking to buy dozens of Russian T-90 tanks to replace part of its aging U.S.-made fleet.
In an interview, Thai Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan told Reuters no decision had been made on the tanks. But U.S. restrictions on the sale of arms to the military-ruled country means Thailand needs to shop elsewhere for the roughly 50 tanks it needs, he said.
“The U.S. won’t sell weaponry to us, and as of late we’ve been on a tight budget and can’t afford them,” Prawit said. A 2011 deal to buy 49 tanks from Ukraine fell through after only 10 were delivered, he noted.
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, he said.
“It’s not that we’ve decided to be on good terms with China and Russia and not with the U.S. We’re equally good to all of them.”
Russia has made it clear that its approach to Thailand is part of a broader push for Asian influence. But this will not necessarily be at the expense of China or the United States, ambassador Barsky said.
“Russia does not need to prove to anybody that Russia is an Asian power, an Asia-Pacific power, a Euro-Pacific power. This is our destiny as a country which stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific coast,” he said.
Next week’s visit will include talks on 25 separate draft agreements, including on trade, culture, technology and security, he said.
Prawit will meet Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin and Trade Minister Denis Manturov for talks on military and technical cooperation, Barksy said.
“If Thailand selects Russian tanks, more than welcome, more than welcome.”
Matthew Sussex, a Russia expert at Australian National University, said any deal on tanks “would certainly make Washington sit up and take notice.”
Russia already refuels its nuclear-capable bombers in Vietnam and is probing Southeast Asia for a possible strategic “toehold,” he said.
Even if they remain all talk, warming Thai-Russia relations would still worry the United States, Sussex said.
“The fact that the Thai government is starting to say ‘well, you know, what about the Russians?’ sends pretty worrying signs to D.C.”