In a strategically significant move, Thailand has decided to join hands with India and Singapore for a trilateral naval exercise. The decision comes after some initial reservations by the Thai government because of concerns that it might antagonise China.
Thailand has close relations with China, and the latter’s influence in the southeast Asian kingdom has been growing further. While Thailand has no claims on the contentious South China Sea, many among the other 10 members of Asean are locked in territorial disputes with China there. The trilateral exercise is slated to be conducted in the Andaman Sea.
Any coming together of Asean members for a maritime exercise with India, which has close, expanding ties with the regional grouping and even describes it as a “key pillar of Indian foreign policy”, is likely to raise Beijing’s concerns.
Sources say the Thai government has already conveyed its decision to take part in the trilateral exercise to India. “It’s a done deal…the modalities for a concept paper on the proposed exercise are being worked out,” said an informed source.
Thailand has agreed to be part of the trilateral exercise after India was able to convince both Thai Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-Cha and Deputy PM and defence minister General Prawit Wongsuwon on the need to do so, sources added.
At present, the Indian Navy and the Royal Thai Navy conduct coordinated maritime patrols twice a year, which began in 2005, with the last one being held in June 2018.
The trilateral naval exercise was proposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi while delivering the keynote address at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore June 1 last year. However, while the PM’s speech had mentioned Singapore as part of the trilateral exercise, Thailand was not named.
“We will start a new trilateral exercise with Singapore soon and we hope to extend it to other ASEAN countries,” Prime Minister Modi said in the speech, while also spelling out in detail India’s vision for the ‘Indo-Pacific’ construct.
The member-countries of Asean “connect the two great oceans….and that “Inclusiveness, openness and Asean centrality and unity, therefore, lie at the heart of the new Indo-Pacific”, he added.
Significantly, the PM’s speech also said that “Southeast Asia is at its centre. And, ASEAN has been and will be central to its future. That is the vision that will always guide India, as we seek to cooperate for an architecture for peace and security in this region.”
On their part, India and Singapore have been conducting bilateral naval exercises on a regular basis. Indeed, the 25th edition of Simbex (Singapore-India Maritime Bilateral Exercise) was held in November last year, starting in the Andaman Sea and culminating in the Bay of Bengal of the coast of Vishakhapatnam. The previous year, Simbex was conducted in the South China Sea.
Upon the conclusion of Simbex 2018, the defence ministers of India and Singapore, Nirmala Sitharaman and Dr Ng Eng Hen, respectively in a joint statement, underscored the importance of maintaining freedom of navigation and overflight consistent with international law including UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) “as littoral countries astride key Sea Lines of Communication”. It’s something that China is often reminded of by countries amidst its increasing muscle-flexing in the South China Sea.
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