U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met with Thailand's prime minister on Monday as part of an effort to strengthen what Austin says is Washington's "unparalleled network of alliances and partnerships" in the region.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is also defense minister, also met Austin last month in Washington. Thailand and the United States are longtime military allies, despite a cooling of relations after the 2014 military coup that brought former army commander Prayuth to power.
A U.S. Defense Department statement said Austin's visit, his first to Thailand as defense secretary, is an important step toward modernizing the U.S.-Thai alliance and expanding the depth and breadth of military cooperation.
Thai media reported that Prayuth would likely discuss arms procurement with Austin, including of F-35 fighter aircraft. No details of what they talked about were immediately available.
Tensions between the U.S. and China have been growing in part over Beijing's claims to Taiwan and much of the South China Sea, and its increasing power and influence in the region.
In a speech Saturday at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue defense summit in Singapore, Austin said China's "steady increase in provocative and destabilizing military activity near Taiwan" threatens to undermine the region's security and prosperity.
He said he was proud that Washington's "unparalleled network of alliances and partnerships has only deepened" in the past year.
China's defense minister, Gen. Wei Fenghe, said at the same conference that the U.S. is trying to turn Southeast Asian countries against Beijing and is seeking to advance its own interests "under the guise of multilateralism."
China over the past decade has been trying to extend its influence in Southeast Asia, both through aid and investment, including its "Belt and Road" infrastructure projects and use of its navy and other maritime resources to press its claims to vast areas of the South China Sea.
Thailand and the United States were close allies during the Vietnam War, and in 2003, Washington designated Thailand a major non-NATO ally, one of about 20 worldwide.
Such status means the U.S. regards Thailand as a strategic partner, and facilitates some aspects of military assistance and cooperation. The annual multinational Cobra Gold military exercise, one of the world's biggest, is hosted in Thailand in partnership with the United States.
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