Thailand plans Chinese arms cache, worrying ASEAN neighbors. Stockpile could be used to arm Khmer Rouge, Southeast Asians say

The Thai Army is taking an unprecedented step to establish a stockpile of Chinese arms in Thailand - the first known communist war chest in a noncommunist country. It is a move that worries Thailand's partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Thai Army Commander in Chief Gen. Chaovalit Yongchaiyuth flies to Peking Nov. 22 for informal talks on the subject. Chinese Premier Li Peng arrives in Bangkok on Thursday on the first leg of a foreign trip, but discussions are expected to focus on Cambodia and economic issues, not on arms.

According to preliminary plans, no sales would be involved with the weapons cache; the Thai government would only pay the Chinese for the arms if they were used. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Sunthorn Kongsompong recently said the stockpile would be used and administered by the Thais; the Chinese would have no access to it.

The plan, however, has already sparked concern among ASEAN countries, particularly Malaysia and Indonesia, which fear the expansion of Chinese influence in the region.

What most troubles Thailand's allies is the possibility of using the Chinese stockpile to arm the Khmer Rouge. The communist Khmer Rouge, which ruled Cambodia from 1975 to '78, is held responsible for 1 million to 3 million deaths under a brutal restructuring of Cambodian society. It is the strongest of three Cambodian resistance groups fighting the Vietnam-backed regime in Phnom Penh.

Since Bangkok normalized relations with Peking in 1976, Thailand has enjoyed excellent political ties with China because both strongly oppose Vietnam's 1979 invasion of Cambodia. Thailand is the only ASEAN member that has diplomatic ties with China. Vietnam and Laos have condemned the buildup of weapons, which they say would be aimed at them.

Bangkok's own security concerns have led it to permit the channeling of international aid to the Khmer Rouge. That, in turn, has brought charges recently that some individuals within the military were siphoning off aid. The Washington Post reported last week that $3.5 million in aid from the United States was skimmed by Thai military officers and possibly by businessmen. The military has denied such charges.

The ASEAN countries are also concerned that China might use Thailand as a springboard for international arms trade worldwide. It is widely acknowledged that Bangkok is rapidly becoming a trading post for international arms merchants who want to buy cheap weapons.

The idea of setting up an arms depot here was first broached by Thai military leaders early this year after a series of armed clashes with Vietnamese and Laotian troops along the 1,580-mile border with Cambodia and Laos. In the clash with Laos, the Army lost about 300 men and ammunition valued at about 3 billion baht (US$120 million).

The Thai Foreign Ministry, however, has voiced objection to the quick establishment of the arms depot, which, it argues, comes at the time when regional and international situations have stabilized. The prospects for a Cambodian settlement have never been brighter.

The Foreign Ministry has nurtured the bilateral ties through close political cooperation with China on Cambodia.

Army leaders say the stockpile is for defensive purposes and will help improve chronic logistics problems. Thai military mistakes in the skirmishes with Laos this year showed need for quick supply if Vietnam, Laos, or even Burma caused a border fight. Given the increasing amount of arms being purchased worldwide from China, the Army argues it is natural for it to stockpile ammunition and other armaments from China.

General Chaovalit said that the Chinese stockpile is part of an Army plan to set up various arms stockpiles with friendly countries. He has been looking for similar arrangements with West Germany, Britain, and Singapore. In January 1987, Bangkok and Washington established a joint stockpile.

Analysts say the Thai Army is trying to reduce its dependence on the US. Chinese arms are cheaper and can be delivered much faster, with less government red tape than in the West. To use US arms in the joint Thai-US stockpile, Thailand must first obtain permission from the US government.

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