By Phuong Nguyen & Brittany Billingsley
In recent years, the eastern Indian Ocean corridor has become a theater of geostrategic importance. Myanmar and Thailand sit atop the western entrance to the vital Straits of Malacca, looking out on the strategic Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.
At the same time as China becomes much more assertive with its neighbors over territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, it is stepping up military engagement on the western flank of Southeast Asia.
China and Thailand have enjoyed friendly military ties since the late 1980s. The relationship is characterized by frequent high-level visits and exchanges, and increasing military trade and joint training. Fostering close military ties with Thailand helps China not only accrue strategic influence to its south, but also gain more access to the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea.
Since 2007, Chinese and Thai special forces have conducted three joint counter-terrorism drills, considered to be a smaller version of the annual Thai-U.S. Cobra Gold exercises. In 2010, Chinese and Thai marines began holding joint military training exercises, codenamed Blue Strike. The inaugural Blue Strike was the first time Chinese marine forces conducted joint exercises with foreign forces outside China.
When Chinese defense minister Chang Wanquan visited Thailand in May 2013, he raised the possibility of joint drills between the two air forces, calling it the missing link in Sino-Thai defense cooperation. Chang also said China hopes to bring joint exercises with Thailand to the same level as Cobra Gold, the longest-running U.S. military exercise in the Pacific. In July, Fan Changlong, a vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, paid a visit to Thailand shortly after Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawata took over the defense portfolio.
China has also developed defense ties with Myanmar, but the relationship has often been marked by mutual suspicion. Prior to the initiation of democratic reforms under Myanmar’s president Thein Sein in 2010, Chinese strategic planners had somewhat overestimated their country’s influence in Myanmar. Beijing once regarded Naypyidaw as a loyal and reliable friend, and a key component of its Indian Ocean strategy. China provided weapons and military aid to the junta, but offered little training and in-depth cooperation with Myanmar’s military.
Since Myanmar commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing came into office in 2011, Chinese senior defense officials have made visible efforts to keep him engaged. In May 2011, Xu Caihou, another vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, visited Myanmar and met with Min Aung Hlaing. Present in Xu’s delegation were senior officials from China’s General Armament Department and South Sea Fleet, indicating Beijing’s desire to reinforce defense ties through arms sales and naval cooperation. Two vessels from the South Sea Fleet had earlier stopped in Myanmar on their way back from the Gulf of Aden.
Min Aung Hlaing and Xu met again in Beijing in November 2011, with the former affirming the enduring China-Myanmar friendship regardless of the international situation.
In July, Fan Changlong met with both Min Aung Hlaing and Thein Sein in Naypyidaw, as part of a trip that also took him to Thailand and Kazakhstan. According to Myanmar’s state media, enhanced military ties were expected to follow Fan’s visit. In August, China’s first hospital ship, the Peace Ark, made a high-profile, week-long stop in Yangon, where medical staff provided treatment to thousands of local residents. It was part of the ship’s tour in several South and Southeast Asian countries.
Nonetheless, the Myanmar Navy seems to have an additional partner in mind: India. Leaders from both countries recognized that improved military ties could be mutually beneficial.
When Myanmar Navy chief Thet Swe visited India in July, he requested a quota increase for Myanmar sailors and officers in India’s military academies. During the visit, India agreed to help Myanmar build several offshore patrol vessels. In March, the two navies began coordinating patrols along their shared maritime border.
For the United States, expanded engagement between regional armed forces should be welcomed, as it is a vital part of building strategic trust among governments and maintaining regional stability. At the same time, Washington should recognize that it cannot afford to miss opportunities for engaging Bangkok and Naypyidaw.
Thailand is one of the United States’ treaty allies in Asia, yet bilateral defense ties have gone through ebbs and flows since the 2006 coup that ousted then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Myanmar, meanwhile, is becoming increasingly important in the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean, and could prove to be a major U.S. partner in coming decades. In essence, Washington needs to reconfigure a long-term, strategic vision for the U.S.-Thai alliance, and approach Naypyidaw in a more pragmatic manner.
Ms. Phuong Nguyen is a Research Associate with the CSIS Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies. Ms. Brittany Billingsley is a former Research Associate with the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS.
Phuong Nguyen is an adjunct fellow at CSIS focused on Southeast Asia.