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After Coup

China steps into the breach

Ambassador praises junta even as the US cuts military aid; Prajin says junta concerned about pressure from west

China rushed to praise the military junta yesterday even as the US mounted pressure by cutting some military aid, leading to concerns over pressure from western allies.

Air Force chief ACM Prajin Juntong, who is a deputy leader of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), said the military rulers would "do their best" in response to the moves from the US, Australia and the European Union.

China's Ambassador to Thailand Ning Fukui told Prajin in a meeting yesterday that the junta has strengthened China's confidence in Thailand, notably in terms of economic cooperation.

"Under the leadership of NCPO chief Prayuth Chan-ocha and ACM Prajin, who oversees economic matters, China-Thai trade has been restored quickly," Ning said. "China will give importance to trade and investment with Thailand."

Early yesterday, Scot Marciel, the US State Department's deputy assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, testified before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific that Washington has blocked US$4.7 million (Bt152 million) in military-related assistance to Thailand.

The US has also cancelled high-level engagements, military exercises and training programmes with the Thai Armed Forces and the police. It has also halted the bilateral naval exercise called Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training and the bilateral Hanuman Guardian army exercise.

Washington continues to review other programmes and engagements and would consider further measures as circumstances warrant, Marciel said.

"Our hope is that this strong international message, plus pressure from within Thailand, will lead to an easing of repression and an early return to democracy," he said.

The US was also considering moving next year's Cobra Gold, one of the largest military exercises and a key element in the US strategy of pivoting power to Asia, he said.

However, Prajin did not think there would be any problem for Thailand.

"The Air Force already has regular exercises with countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia," he said, pointing out that the US also benefited from Cobra Gold.

Sihasak Phuangketkeow, permanent secretary of the Foreign Ministry, said the US threat to cut aid and relocate Cobra Gold should not be a major cause for concern.

No official decisions have been made, he said.

"The Foreign Ministry will explain about this officially so society will not panic," Sihasak said.

The US, along with the European Union and Australia, are among the countries that have stepped up measures to condemn the military coup in Thailand. The EU suspended the signing of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Thailand and halted officials' visits to the Kingdom.

It urged its members to review bilateral military cooperation with Thailand. Australia also downgraded military cooperation and imposed travel restrictions on the coup leaders.

In response to the mounting pressure from the West, Prajin said the NCPO was trying to create a good understanding about what it was doing, such as making people happy.

"I believe that foreign countries have a better understanding now. Things are going positively," he said.

Shortly after the 2006 coup, the US had similarly ramped up pressure against Thailand, but ties were normalised the following year, he said.

As the NCPO's point man for economic matters, Prajin was due to meet the South Korean ambassador today.

"The discussion will be about economic cooperation, and I believe there will be good news," he predicted.


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