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US navy eyes Thailand for humanitarian, disaster-relief operations

Publication Date : 06-06-2012


Apart from Nasa's proposal to use U-Tapao airport, the US Navy is also interested in using the Royal Thai Navy airfield as a multipurpose facility for humanitarian and disaster-relief operations.

The US Navy's plans, which are separate from the US space agency's proposal for a weather-monitoring centre at U-Tapao, are in line with the US Navy's strategy to concentrate the bulk of its forces in the Pacific, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said yesterday.

U-Tapao was a base for the US Air Force's B-52 bombers during the Vietnam War. The airport was a headquarters for humanitarian aid in the 2004 tsunami and for 2008's Cyclone Nargis. It also serves as a logistics hub for the annual Cobra Gold joint military exercises.

Dempsey said he has discussed the US Navy's plans with Supreme Commander Tanasak Patimapragorn to have U-Tapao as a permanent centre for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

"It's the perfect place for that," he said.

Thailand and the US have a long history of military relations, Dempsey said, and the US is looking to further those ties. A disaster-relief centre at U-Tapao could become the key to future US-Thai cooperation, he said.

The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration has requested to use the U-Tapao airfield as a meteorology centre. It made the request under the administration of Abhisit Vejjajiva but has not yet received approval, Foreign Minister Surapong Towichukchaikul said.

"It is completely unrelated. Nasa is a civilian agency. It has nothing to do with the Department of Defence," Dempsey said in an interview yesterday with The Nation editor-in-chief Suthichai Yoon.

However, U-Tapao was a very logical place for such weather-related tasks as monsoon prediction and flood monitoring, Dempsey said.

Thailand and the US have not yet made any formal agreement on the joint use of U-Tapao.

Dempsey said he informed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra that he agreed with his Thai counterpart

Tanasak on the airfield's use for the Cobra Gold exercises and to explore the possibility of using it as a humanitarian relief centre.

Defence Minister Sukampol Suwannathat said the US would use U-Tapao only for humanitarian purposes, not as a base for combat command.

A possible US deal on U-Tapao also has nothing to do with fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra getting a visa to the US, Sukampol said.

Dempsey said the US has no intention to turn U-Tapao into a US combat base as it was during the Vietnam War, when locals were barred from entering.

"Anything we do with Thailand, it is on the basis that it is a Thai base," Dempsey said.

The interest in U-Tapao comes as the US is "repositioning" its naval forces to boost its presence in the Pacific. It is engaging with other countries, such as the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam.

In the Philippines, another ally in the Pacific, Dempsey said he has been seeking locations for military training and exercises.

The US "rebalancing" in the Pacific is not intended as a move to contain China, Dempsey said.

The US would also not get involved in the conflict in the South China Sea between China and other Southeast Asian nations. The US' only interest in the area is simply the right of free navigation and the right of passage, he said. "We would not get involved in a territorial dispute," Dempsey said.


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