Thursday, December 17, 2009

Update on the Sino-Thailand "Cobra Gold" Military Exercise.

The Sino-Thailand "Cobra Gold" initiative was first reported by Robert Karniol back in February 2009. It was "officially" proposed to the Thai military last month during Defense Minister Liang Guanglie's visit.

According to the latest news, China has offered to pay for all of the proposed military exercises (here) It would be a diplomatic coup if China manages to conduct this exercise with Thailand maintaining balance between Beijing and Washington.

China gives war game invite
* Published: 28/11/2009 at 12:00 AM
* Newspaper section: News

China has invited Thailand to take part in an inaugural joint military exercise similar to the annual Thai-US Cobra Gold, a source says.

If such an exercise goes ahead, it could affect the balance of military power in the region to the detriment of the United States, a high-ranking military source said. As a result, Thailand's military must consider the impact of such an operation on its relations with both the US and China.

"Senior military officers are excited by this news. They are consulting about the matter," the source said. "But the armed forces are afraid that the US, which has jointly conducted the annual Cobra Gold exercise with Thailand for over 20 years, may be upset with China's proposal as it will affect its military power in the region."

China's Defence Ministry recently sent a letter proposing a joint military exercise between the two countries, said the source.

China's Defence Minister Liang Guanglie broached the issue with Thailand's permanent secretary for defence Apichart Penkitti when he made an official visit to China last month.

The proposal prompted Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon to have the permanent secretary set up a panel to study the pros and cons of holding such an operation with China, said the source.

Gen Prawit will communicate the ministry's decision to Mr Liang, when he comes to Thailand from Dec 1-3, after having visited North Korea and Japan to boost military exchanges, the source said.

Thailand's armed forces should seriously consider taking China up on its offer as the country is a major regional power. Thailand's military, particularly the navy, is also equipped with Chinese weapons, the source said.

Thailand's procurement of weapons from China and other countries has reduced the military's dependence on the US, which over the years has paid less attention to the country, said the source.

The Defence Ministry would likely agree in principle with China's proposal. However, talks on the budgets for the exercise and other details would be held later, he said.

PLA focusing on amphibious growth
Feb 23, 2009
By Robert Karniol, Defence Writer

THE Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) is again seeking foreign support to strengthen its capabilities in amphibious operations after suffering rejections by at least two potential partners.

The current initiative involves a PLA proposal to conduct a bilateral training exercise with the Royal Thai Marine Corps (RTMC), with talks ongoing. The discussions have been kept confidential due to political sensitivities but sources in both the RTMC and the Royal Thai Navy have independently confirmed that they are taking place.

'We are concerned about how this might affect relations with the US Navy (and US Marine Corps),' a Thai source told The Straits Times. He nevertheless acknowledged that an RTMC delegation is soon due to visit China for further deliberations.

Amphibious military capabilities have application in disaster relief and humanitarian operations but they are designed mainly for complex combat assault missions launched from the sea. The latter are vital in the projection of military power in areas distant from home territory. In China's case, the capability would be particularly important in a full-scale conflict with Taiwan.

The PLA has traditionally had limited amphibious capabilities but is emphasising their expansion. Unusually, this effort is focused largely on regular ground forces rather than on the marines.

The PLA navy's marine corps element was doubled in 1998, growing to two brigades, but its total personnel still number only about 10,000. However, two motorised infantry divisions were later converted into amphibious mechanized infantry divisions and may have since been joined by a third. Beyond that, foreign analysts say that at least one quarter of all PLA manoeuvre units have participated in amphibious training exercises.

A number of new amphibious training areas have been established on several islands off southern China, and sealift capabilities have been enhanced with the induction of new vessels. Sealift nevertheless remains limited as the inventory includes just 50 to 60 large and medium-sized landing ships that together can accommodate just a single infantry division.

China analyst Tai Ming Cheung has noted a growing PLA emphasis on amphibious training - including a major exercise held in 2001 that involved some 100,000 personnel, and a more sophisticated one in 2004 that involved some 18,000 troops together with PLA Air Force and strategic missile units.

The PLA leadership has sought to supplement these efforts with some foreign expertise and experience. Long reticent in engaging in bilateral or multilateral military exercises, the PLA has come in recent years to appreciate the political and military advantages they can provide.

China's 2008 defence White Paper notes that the PLA had the previous year 'held over 20 exercises with a score of countries'. Such relations with Thailand began with a Chinese land-mine clearance training programme and a limited naval exercise, both held in 2005. With the Joint Action Plan on Thailand-China Strategic Cooperation, signed in May 2007, the two countries launched a series of small-scale counter-terrorism exercises involving special forces that has since alternated annually between Chinese and Thai territory.

China in early 2004 approached the United States with a proposal to send PLA personnel to observe military exercises involving amphibious assault operations. Washington rejected the overture, doubtless concerned over Taiwan and the broader issue of PLA power projection. Beijing later that year tried with South Korea. Seoul, too, said no.

The PLA then changed tack and invited a select group of foreign observers to a tactical amphibious assault exercise held in September 2004 at the Shanwei coastal training area in Guangzhou province. Sources later said that this was a very well executed but fairly basic exercise, with one noting that 'they are a long way from fitting their capabilities to their concepts of operation'. Foreign observers, he added, were closely questioned by PLA personnel on issues relating to amphibious operations.

China's focus on the US and South Korea is hardly coincidental. The US military is clearly the most experienced in the world with regard to amphibious assault. South Korea's 28,000 marines are deeply influenced by American methods.

The 23,000-strong RTMC is similarly guided by US doctrine and training. The annual Cobra Gold exercise is most significant in this regard as it includes an amphibious assault component involving only Thai and US forces.

These forces joined together on Feb 13 in a combined exercise involving the RTMC amphibious assault vehicle battalion and 500 personnel from the US Marine Corps' 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, supported by navy and air units, together storming a beach at Hat Yao in southern Thailand. Since its start in 1981, this has been the RTMC's most important and useful training experience.

China had three observers at Cobra Gold, though they weren't at the amphibious component for reasons that remain unclear. But its proposal for joint exercises with the RTMC indicates that the PLA is looking for deeper insights into the US model. Bangkok will now need to consider how this might affect the delicate balance it seeks to maintain between Beijing and Washington.

Photos of the "strike-2007" China-Thailand Special Force Combined Training took place in July 2006.

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