By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
BANGKOK, Nov. 15, 2012 – Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Thai Defense Minister Sukampol Suwannathat affirmed their nations’ long-term military partnership here today, updating a vision for the alliance whose most recent statement, in 1962, focused on fighting communism.
Later, after signing the 2012 Joint Vision Statement for the Thai-U.S. Defense Alliance, both men made statements to a room packed with journalists.
Panetta said he is honored to visit Thailand as the U.S. secretary of defense, and he thanked Sukampol for his hospitality.
“I also wanted to come here as secretary to affirm very strongly that the United States-Thailand defense alliance remains strong and remains one of our great alliances in this region,” he added.
Thailand will be increasingly important in collective security efforts to promote peace and prosperity in the region, Panetta said, expressing appreciation to the minister and the Thai military for close cooperation and generous support offered to American forces over the years.
“Recognizing that our future prosperity and … security are closely tied to that of the Asia-Pacific region, President [Barack] Obama has committed the United States to working even more closely with our friends and allies in this region,” Panetta said, “deepening our engagement through diplomacy, through trade and through stronger military to military relations.”
The president looks forward to further discussing these issues when he arrives here later this week to visit Bangkok on a trip that also will include visits to Rangoon, Burma, and Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
“America’s engagement with Thailand is a crucial part of these broader efforts,” Panetta said.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the communiqué signed in 1962 by Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Thai Foreign Minister Thanat Khoman, he added, an agreement that committed the nations to halting the spread of communism.
“Today the minister and I moved this alliance into the 21st century,” Panetta said, “by signing a joint vision statement that will help pave the way for even stronger military-to-military ties as we adapt to the shared threats and challenges that we will face together in this region and in the future.”
According to the new vision statement, U.S.-Thai defense cooperation will focus on four key areas:
-- Partnership for regional security in Southeast Asia;
-- Supporting stability in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond;
-- Bilateral and multilateral interoperability and readiness; and
-- Relationship building, coordination and collaboration at all levels.
Panetta’s visit is the culmination of a year’s worth of reinvigoration of the strategic part of the two nations’ defense relationship, a senior defense official said in a background briefing earlier today for reporters traveling with the secretary.
On the operational side of the relationship, the militaries of the United States and Thailand are deeply engaged in massive exercises such as the Thai-led Cobra Gold, the world’s largest multilateral military exercise and premier training event in Asia, the official said.
Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training, called CARAT, is another area of cooperation, he added. This is a series of bilateral military exercises between the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps and the armed forces of Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. And Timor Leste joined the exercise for the first time this year.
The Thais like the engagement and they want more, the official said. “There’s a big demand signal from the Thais to do more training, to come to our schools, to engage on the operational side and the classroom side as well as the strategic part,” he added.
The relationship has also been reinvigorated, the official said, by a series of meetings and visits over the past several months between officials of each nation.
Panetta had a short encounter with Sukampol this year at the Shangri-La Dialogue regional security conference in Singapore. Then Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Bangkok in June and later received a reciprocal visit by his counterpart, Gen. Thanasak Patimaprakorn.
Other visits included one to Bangkok in July by Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, and a visit to Thailand last month by Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III, commander of U.S. Pacific Command. And in Washington last month, the U.S.-Thailand Defense Strategic Talks put Defense Department officials together with a senior-level Thai delegation, the official said.
This summer, Thai defense officials held a two-day conference on their role in the U.S. defense strategic rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region, he added, and came away from it with interests that led to the updating of the Thai-U.S. defense alliance.
“As we focus on these areas of cooperation,” Panetta said today, “I want to convey that the United States remains committed to helping the Thai military further develop its already impressive capabilities so that it can assume even greater security responsibilities in this region,” particularly in maritime security, humanitarian relief and peacekeeping operations.
“Thailand is an important ally in the Asia-Pacific region,” the secretary added, “and we look forward to strengthening that alliance to ensure the friendship and security of both our nations in the future.”