Japan is currently drafting a legal framework with Thailand to allow the future transfer of its defence equipment and technology. If that happens soon, it would represent a significant milestone in their mutual defence cooperation since the end of World War II.
Thailand collaborated with Japan during World War II, but turned around at the end of war and sided with the allied forces. Both countries are now part of the United States-dominated alliance.
During the Vietnam conflict, the US maintained over 100,000 troops and hundreds of aircraft in Thailand as its forward bases to counter the threat of communism.
After the end of the Cold War, Thailand’s strategic value was not given serious attention by the Americans and the evaluation gradually eroded the once unshakeable US-Thai alliance. The trend has been a blessing in disguise as other powers used this window to fill the vacuum.
Doubtless, Japan’s proposal quickly received unanimous support from the Thai Ministry of Defence and National Security Council, when the idea of weapons and technology transfer was broached early this month.
It is an open secret that Bangkok has constantly complained that the US government has not paid any attention whenever Thailand, as a non-Nato ally, wanted to procure additional weapons to beef up defence and overall capacity. Washington often responded with a long list of conditions. Notably, it is the only US ally that does not have ministerial-level strategic consultations that include foreign and defence ministers.
With Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s proactive foreign and security policies toward Southeast Asia now firmly in place, Thailand is more confident and enthusiastic to increase its engagement with Japan.
Both sides are hoping the final framework will be ready for signature by the middle of the year. This dramatic development has been accelerated by the current fluid strategic landscape. Furthermore, Tokyo needs an additional defence tier beyond the US-Japan security framework that would strengthen its national security in this neighbourhood.
More than the Thai and Japanese officials would like to admit, they share a similar anxiety and concern that the new US administration and foul-mouthed President Donald Trump could cause further damage to the current alliance system in the Asia-Pacific. Any disruption, real or imagined, to security networks operational since World War II, would impact on the regional strategic landscape. Japan would be the most vulnerable.
Japan has a large stockpile of used but well-maintained defence equipment such as jet fighters, frigates, artillery and other hardware, which could be transferred to Thailand at a moment’s notice.
Thai and Japanese defence officials share the same guidelines and interoperability of US-manufactured weapons. During the Chuan Leekpai administration (1997-2000), repeated attempts were made to transfer some spare parts of US-made F-5 jet fighters from Japan. But they were not successful due to the lack of a legal framework and US support at the time.
All along, Japan has taken an active part in the annual joint Thai-US military exercise, Cobra Gold. The upcoming event – the 36th – will be opened by Pacific Commander Rear Admiral Harry Harris on February 14 in Sattahip, Chon Buri.
Japan has benefited greatly from the joint exercise, especially on land assaults and amphibious landings. In recent years, the exercises were concentrated on humanitarian assistance and disaster management.
Previously, Thailand has been slow in responding to Japan’s new collective self-defence postures. At the end of 2013, during the visit of Abe to Bangkok he was supposed to sign a memorandum of understanding on maritime security cooperation with then-prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra. However, before his arrival in Bangkok, Thailand notified Tokyo it was not ready to sign. Subsequently, Japan has looked towards Vietnam, the Philippines – as well as Indonesia – as the countries to enhance maritime security cooperation. The first two countries were given priority due to their urgent need to improve their maritime security capacity.
At the November meeting in Vientiane, the Asean and Japanese defence ministers held back-to-back meetings and came up with the Vientiane Vision, which details Japan’s defence cooperation initiative with Asean.
From now on, there will more dialogue and cooperation on rules of law, deepening and diversifying practical cooperation on regional security, transfer of defence equipment and technology as well as capacity building.
Japan used to be discreet in its security approach with Asean as a group and individually, knowing full well the sensitivity of past histories, especially towards the countries that fought Japan’s militarism. Now under Abe’s leadership, Tokyo has exhibited clearly the Asean-wide defence doctrine.
During the 1990s, Japan moved cautiously to establish defence exchanges with Asean members involving senior officials. Over past decades, since Japan joined Asean as a dialogue partner 1973, the focus of their relations has been on economic cooperation and investment. Japan is the main driver of economic development and progress in the region. In addition, Tokyo has also played a constructive role in bridging the gap between the new and old Asean.
Beginning in the new millennium, Asean-Japan defence cooperation was gradually transformed from military exchanges to confidence building and enhanced mutual understanding. However, the nature of their cooperation has become more strategic, involving capacity-building cooperation and technological transfer. Last year, Japan provided naval vessels to the Philippines and Vietnamese to bolster their maritime security.
In the case of Thailand, Japan has reiterated that the transfer of defence equipment and technology is strictly bilateral, serving to enhance security and defence cooperation between them. Therefore, both governments must approve any transfer or future use that involves the third party.