Thailand and Japan have enjoyed more than 600 years of friendly exchanges. After the establishment of official diplomatic relations in 1887, Thailand never had any problems with Japan, apart from the misfires of World War II and the anti-Japan movement of the 1970s, motivated by trade imbalances and fears of a Japanese economic invasion. The two nations have maintained close ties in all areas – economic, political, people-to-people contacts and royal relations – except one: defence.
Given the constitutional and normative constraints of post-war Japan and the lack of external threat from Thailand in the aftermath of the Indochina wars, Thai-Japanese military engagement has traditionally been limited to “maintaining peace” missions. peace” within the framework of the alliance of the United Nations or the United States. Examples include the 1999 peacebuilding operations in East Timor (Japan was the largest financial contributor while Thailand provided the second largest number of troops to the UN Mandated International Force in East Timor ), reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, and Japan’s participation in the US-Thailand-led operation. Cobra Gold drill since 2005.
Over the past decade, however, Bangkok and Tokyo have made critical adjustments to their defense postures in response to growing geopolitical uncertainties. Under the security-focused Prayut Chan-o-cha government, Thailand stepped up purchases of high-end weapons, unveiled a 10-year modernization plan in 2017 to raise defense spending to 2% of GDP and propelled technology transfer to the forefront of the country’s defense agreements. The government’s immediate objective is to ensure that the Thai armed forces are easily equipped while the long-term objective is to establish a local defense industrial base, thereby reducing Thailand’s dependence on imported weapons and facilitating the pursuit of Thailand’s neutrality in international relations.
Japan’s quest to remilitarize, meanwhile, has become more palpable. Japan’s arms export ban was lifted and the Japan Self-Defense Forces were recently allowed to fight overseas for the first time since World War II. Efforts have also been made to educate the Japanese public about national security and promote patriotic education.
Under the Abe Shinzo government (2012-2020), Southeast Asia has become very important in Japan’s strategic calculations. This trend continued under the administrations of Suga Yoshihide (2020-2021) and Kishida Fumio (2021-present). This, on the one hand, highlights Japan’s attempt to play a more proactive role in the US-Japan alliance by serving as a bridge connecting the reluctant ASEAN countries to the United States. However, on the other hand, it reflects Japan’s attempt to guard against the risks of American abandonment.
In a clear departure from the long-cherished Yoshida Doctrine, which emphasizes economic development and leaves security matters to the United States, Japan has launched a series of independent defense initiatives with South Asian countries. South East. With Thailand, there have been frequent talks between Thai and Japanese military officers, and Abe’s Japan reportedly tried to win a contract to equip Thailand with an air defense radar system in 2016.
Still, Thailand’s defense cooperation with Japan has seen slower progress compared to other ASEAN countries. First, unlike Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia, which share a “common enemy” – China – with Japan in the maritime domain, Thailand has maintained a low profile in disputed waters. Second, Thai military leaders view China’s arms sales positively. Chinese weapons systems may be less advanced than those of the United States and Japan, but Chinese weapons are much cheaper and are of fairly decent quality.
The distance between Thailand and Japan became clear when Suga took over from Abe. Suga followed Abe’s tradition of choosing Southeast Asia, not the United States, as the destination for his first overseas trip as prime minister. But, unlike Abe, Suga excluded Thailand from his itinerary and stopped in Vietnam and Indonesia to discuss mostly strategic concerns. In the same vein, Japan has started to transfer part of its production from Thailand to Vietnam.
Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia all signed the “defense equipment and technology transfer agreement” to deepen bilateral defense relations with Japan, and the fear of being left behind must have weighed heavily in Thailand’s decision to pursue such an agreement with Japan. . Amid rising national priorities and cuts to the defense budget for the fourth year in a row, which have further reduced Thailand’s prospects of acquiring China’s long-stalled submarines, the transfer deal of defense between Thailand and Japan was signed and revealed during Kishida’s official visit to Bangkok earlier this month.
Against the backdrop of a rapidly deteriorating security environment, Japan will surely strengthen its defense presence in Southeast Asia, and Japan’s influence in Thailand’s military modernization program will inevitably increase. The dramatic decline in Russian arms sales to the region will play more in favor of Japan. That said, how far Japan’s military cooperation with Thailand (and ASEAN as a whole) goes will largely depend on whether Japan can pursue its security goals without seriously provoking China.