Although Thai officials have insisted that the planned use by the United States of the Thai naval base in U-Tapao is purely for humanitarian purposes, some skeptics are saying that the naval airfield would eventually be used for military operations.
Defense Minister Sukamphon Suwannathat has already affirmed that the U.S. would use U-Tapao but only for humanitarian missions and not as combat command center.
During his visit to Bangkok as part of his Asian tour, U.S. Army Gen. Marn E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed with key Thai leaders the plan to establish U-Tapao Navy Airfield as a permanent center for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
On his visit Dempsey met with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Defense Minister Sukamphon Suwannathat, Chief of Defense Forces Gen. Thanasak Patimaprakorn and the chiefs of the Royal Thai army, navy and air force.
Dempsey, whose trip focused on strategy and cooperation with key allies and partners in the region, however, denied speculations that the U.S. is interested in using U-Tapao as a combat base for future American military operations in the Asia- Pacific.
Dempsey’s visit to Thailand coincided with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)’s request to use U- Tapao as its base to conduct atmospheric studies in Southeast Asia which was unveiled a day earlier.
The U.S. space agency announces in its website that the Southeast Asia Composition, Cloud, Climate Coupling Regional Study, or SEAC4RS, will take place in August and September this year from a base in U-Tapao.
This mission, the NASA said, will address key questions regarding the influence of Asian emissions on clouds, climate, meteorology and air quality.
Even without the U.S. proposal to set up humanitarian assistance and disaster relief center at U-Tapao, the opposition Democrat Party has already expressed skepticism that the airfield could be turned into a military base.
In a related development, a U.S. international relations scholar said at a recent seminar here that “the U.S. and Thailand should increase their efforts to develop a regional hub for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief” since the region is frequently hit by natural disasters.
The recommendation did not specifically identify U-Tapao as the proposed region disaster relief hub but U-Tapao has become the default mechanism on every natural disaster in Southeast Asia for the past five years, and so it’s most likely that it would be, said Catharin Dalpino, the scholar from Simmons College in the U.S. at the seminar entitled “Reinvigorating the U.S.-Thailand Alliance for the 21st Century”.
U-Tapao once served as the U.S. military base during the Vietnam War but recently the airfield has been a center for humanitarian aid and played a role in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008, and the 2011 flood crisis in Thailand.
It also serves as a logistics hub for the annual Cobra Gold joint military exercise, the U.S. largest multilateral military drill in the Asia-Pacific region.
Panitharn Wattanayakorn, a political analyst, said that though the U.S. use of U-Tapao was nothing new, the country’s policy shift in repositioning its forces in the region is what makes some people skeptical about the plan.
The U.S. is also seeking some temporary basing arrangements with the Philippines and Singapore.