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China Sets Joint Air-Force Training With Thailand

China’s military said it would dispatch jet fighters to Thailand for joint air-force training with the U.S. ally starting Sunday, drills that come on the heels of Beijing’s live-fire exercises around Taiwan and coincide with a large U.S. military exercise in Indonesia.

The coming Falcon Strike exercises will mark the fifth time the Thai and Chinese air forces have practiced and are focused on building trust between the nations, China’s Ministry of National Defense said.

In recent days, the U.S. has conducted its own live-fire drills in Indonesia along with regional allies, including Australia, Japan and Singapore.

The so-called Super Garuda Shield exercises have gathered 2,000 forces each from the U.S. and Indonesia, plus personnel from 12 other nations, some participating for the first time. A joint U.S.-Indonesia government statement described the exercises as “significantly larger in scope and scale than previous exercises,” and “designed to strengthen interoperability, capabilities, trust, and cooperation built over decades of shared experiences.”

High-profile wargames in Southeast Asia featuring the two global rivals are a stark reminder of how military tensions increasingly cloud a region known primarily for its economic dynamism. The U.S. military footprint is extensive in Southeast Asia, but China’s rising clout and expanding ambitions increasingly make it—on a limited scale—a challenger to traditional American dominance.


State television in Beijing shows China’s military exercises near Taiwan in recent days.


In addition to demonstrating their military capabilities, Washington and Beijing in recent weeks have dispatched top diplomats to Southeast Asian capitals, including to a regional grouping in Cambodia where both sides described the other as a destabilizing force. The U.S. and Chinese presidents, Joe Biden and Xi Jinping, are expected in the region in November for back-to-back summits in Thailand and Indonesia, where The Wall Street Journal reported this week efforts are being made to schedule bilateral talks.

The U.S. Defense Department says China’s primary military objectives center on gaining control of the self-governed island of Taiwan—and tension ratcheted up significantly this month.

The People’s Liberation Army this week concluded several days of live-fire exercises, naval and air patrols plus missile strikes around Taiwan aimed at deterring pro-independence moves on the island, which it fears will be stoked by a recent visit by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The island is self-governed by a democratically elected government but China claims Taiwan as its territory, and the PLA’s exercises simulated how Beijing might execute a blockade or invasion to gain control.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strike into neighboring Ukraine this year stirred concerns Chinese President Xi could take a similar step to realize his Taiwan ambitions, though military analysts primarily cast doubt such a move is imminent considering victory by Beijing would be difficult. U.S. authorities described China’s drills, which disrupted commercial shipping and raised military tensions, as an overreaction that risks destabilizing the region.

Taiwan has been taking clues from Ukraine on how smaller armies can inflict heavy losses on larger rivals. WSJ unpacks Taipei’s so-called porcupine strategy to prepare for a potential war with China. Photos: Getty Images; Sipa USA

The Thai-Chinese Falcon Strike exercises scheduled to begin Sunday will be hosted at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, which has longstanding ties to the U.S. Air Force and was used extensively during the Vietnam War. The first Falcon Strike exercises, in November 2015, appeared as significant evidence of China’s rising sway and followed by more than a year the toppling of Thailand’s elected government in an Army-led coup.

China’s Defense Ministry said this year’s exercises will feature “key training courses such as air support, strikes on ground targets, and small- and large-scale troop deployment.” It said China would deploy jet fighters, fighter-bombers and airborne early-warning equipment, without specifying details.

Major media in Thailand said China’s force is expected to include six J-10C/S jet fighters, a JH-7AI fighter-bomber and a Shaanxi KJ-500 early warning and control aircraft, while Thailand would deploy eight jet fighters and an early-warning and control aircraft.

The U.S.-Thai alliance dates to 1954 amid shared concern about expanding communism. The two militaries have drilled extensively, including in games called Cobra Gold that have since expanded to include other nations. China has had a role in humanitarian-focused activities.

Making his first trip to Thailand as U.S. Defense secretary in June, Lloyd Austin met with senior officials, including Thai Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Prayut Chan-ocha. The two welcomed efforts to expand bilateral training and exercises, discussed cooperation on cyber and space warfare, plus defense industries, according to the U.S. readout, which emphasized a U.S. desire to strengthen interoperability between the nations’ forces.

But it would be wrong to regard the Chinese-Thai exercises as a new sign Bangkok is veering toward Beijing, since Thailand has been hedging its bets between the two nations for many years, according to Paul Chambers, a lecturer and special advisor on international affairs at northern Thailand’s Naresuan University. Nevertheless, he said by email, “the exercises might strengthen those who want Washington to sell F-35 planes to Thailand as a way to encourage Bangkok to tilt further toward Washington.”

Write to James T. Areddy at

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