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Thai Smiles Wear Thin as NASA's Use of Airbase Upsets China

Asia Monsoon, NASA and South China Sea: Is it only just a NASA's clumsy move in Thailand?

By Anchalee Kongrut, a journalist from the Bangkok Post who is on exchange with the Economic Observer

The U.S. National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) has tried to launch a scientific cooperation with countries in Southeast Asia and Taiwan to study the role of Asian Monsoon circulation and its impact on climate change. Yet, such a harmless noble scientific research earned bricks in Thailand.

The project is known as Southeast Asia Composition, Cloud, Climate Coupling Regional Study (SEAC4RS). 

Instead of being graciously welcomed by renowned Thai smiles, NASA had to defer the project last month after the Thai Government decided to send to parliament the U.S. request to use the U-tapao military naval airbase. Politicians there had a debate on whether it infringes a state's sovereignty. NASA explained that it could not wait for parliamentary debate because the Asian Monsoon was due to start soon.

NASA's research has recently become a hot topic in Thailand. The request to use the report by the U.S. was linked to the geopolitical rivalry between the U.S. And China over the South China Sea. The brouhaha came after the opposition party raised concern that there might be hidden agenda behind NASA's request.

Thai politics are known for their entertainment value. No matter how serious the issue, there are always comic sides mostly found in conspiracy theories, crystal ball reading, superstitious rituals, bluffs and mudslinging that politicians and protesters from each camp using to discredit rivals. Some are true. Yet many are just comic.

For example, the opposition party claimed that the U.S would grant a visa to former PM Thaksin in exchange to the permit for the U.S Military to use the airport for containing China's strategy. (This accusation needs to be probed later!) Another conspiracy went too far, by claiming the NASA was aiming to use the airbase to create natural disasters in this area.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, also came up with a bluff, making a threat that the NASA's climate research would help to improve the country’s ability to predict floods. This threat earned big support from last year’s flood victims in Thailand.

But what makes the public skeptical about the NASA's climate change research is reality - the dubious role of the U.S.

While on the one hand having NASA request to use the airport for the scientific study; on the other hand, the U.S Defense Department asks to use the same airbase for its Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Centre - located on Eastern Seaboard of Thailand, to set up humanitarian relief center in Southeast Asia.

Both requests are noble and deserve nothing less than immediate approval if you’re clueless about the history of U-tapao and its role for the U.S.'s military strategy in Southeast Asia and Asia Pacific.

Located 140 kilometers Southeast of Bangkok, the Royal Thai Navy Air Field served as a base for U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortress in the Vietnam War during 1970. The U.S helped to build the two-mile long runway, know as the longest runway in the region. The U.S. Military used the U-tapoa as a base until the Thai Government asked the U.S. to leave the country in 1976. Thailand and the U.S. re-established military ties in the 1980s under Cobra Gold Military Exercise - known as the largest military endeavor in Asia-Pacific. It now has almost 20 countries mainly from Asia – but not the People's Republic of China.  Needless to say, U-tapao has been the central facility for the military drills provided by the U.S. 

The airport is reportedly viewed by Beijing as ''safeguarding Washington's interest in the Far East and Southeast Asia,'' according to Li Daguang, a military specialist at the University of National Defense in Beijing. 

Boosted by its well-protected location in the Gulf of Thailand, the air-base is blessed by its location situated between the South China Sea and the India Ocean.

Requests from NASA have arrived at the same time as high ranking officials from the Pentagon and the U.S. Defense Department visited Thailand over the past few months.

The U.S. Military is renewing its interest in Thailand.  According to a June 23 article published in The Washington Post, the U.S is finding airbases for its strategy to exert influence in Southeast Asia Region and to contain China’s growing influence. 

The U.S Navy also plans to conduct the joint airborne surveillance of shipping military movement throughout Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. The Navy is searching for an airbase to server as a stopover base  for its new P-8A Poseidon anti-submarine aircraft with its new high altitude surveillance across Asia-Pacific Ocean. The U-tapao is one of the targeted airbases for these plans. 

Indeed, there have been media reports that U-tapao airbase is secretly used by the U.S military as a stopover for security operations including Operation of Iraqi/Enduring Freedom. Wikileaks cables, according to these news reports, detailed around 30 U.S military aircrafts routinely transiting the U-tapoa. Thai military also allowed the U.S's military to stop over on the way to the Middle East.

Closer military ties with the U.S make the public and even the National Security Council worried. Thailand has maintained good ties with both Beijing and Washington. Thailand need to tread with caution as the country - from next year onwards, will take on a role as coordinator of Asean-China Relations' from Vietnam, which now has a serious South China Sea border dispute with China. Thailand plans to take a mediator role in territorial disputes in the South China Sea. 

For local people and passengers, this airport might induce wry smile. The airport was used for emergency airlifts when anti-Thaksin protesters closed other airports late in November 2008, and all international flights were routed there. To entertain stranded passengers, Thai authorities provided food, mini concerts or even Thai classical puppets to put a smile on passengers' faces.

Asian Monsoon will return next year, and, reportedly, NASA's isn’t bowing out of the project. So, there will be another year of requests, protests, conspiracy theories and rumors about the U.S military and NASA.

As one famous joke goes: it’s easier for NASA to land on the Moon than at U-tapao airport in Thailand.


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