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US May Cut Thais Slack on Payments

January 16, 1998

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) _ To demonstrate U.S. understanding for Thailand’s economic crisis, Defense Secretary William Cohen said today the Pentagon will consider making it easier for the Thais to pay for U.S. warplanes and other weapons.

``Perhaps payments could be spread out, payments deferred,″ Cohen told reporters in announcing that a team of U.S. negotiators will come to Bangkok this month to discuss ways of easing Thailand’s arms payment burden.

The Thai government wants a break on $392 million it agreed to pay for eight F-A-18 fighter jets from McDonnell Douglas, now part of Boeing. It also has smaller contracts for other U.S.-made weapons.

Among the options are extending the payment period from five years to eight or getting U.S. permission to resell the advanced warplanes to another country. Cohen did not indicate which approach was likely.

``We are going to work with the Thai government to find ways we can help them through their current economic circumstances,″ Cohen said after talking for about one hour with Chuan Leekpai, who is both prime minister and defense minister.

Cohen said Thailand was an important American ally and that the Clinton administration is eager to see it weather the economic crisis that has gripped much of East Asia.

``President Clinton specifically wanted me to reassure the prime minister that he is very concerned about what’s taking place here and he wants to be as helpful as possible,″ Cohen told reporters.

Cohen later was seeing King Bhumibol Adulyadej at his palace.

The United States has no troops based permanently in Thailand. But U.S. Navy ships frequently call on Thai ports, American military aircraft travel across the country regularly, and troops from the two nations hold training exercises together.

In an interview with The Associated Press in Singapore, Cohen said American arms makers need ``to understand that they (Thailand) are going through some economic difficulties right now, and they need some flexibility. ... Hopefully, the manufacturers could supply that flexibility.″

Cohen did not go into more detail in the interview. But on Wednesday he suggested that some U.S. arms sales to Asian countries will be canceled, others put on hold and some ``delayed or deferred as far as payments are concerned.″

Cohen said he did not plan to renew a U.S. government request for permission from Bangkok to keep U.S. ships loaded with military equipment in the Gulf of Thailand. Such ``prepositioning″ of Army supplies is done in other areas, such as the Persian Gulf, to give the Pentagon a rapid reaction capability.

Thailand in 1993 rejected a U.S. request for prepositioning rights in the Gulf of Thailand.

Cohen also said Clinton had not yet decided whether he would act alone in the latest Iraq conflict.

``The position of the United States is we always would seek to build a coalition, sustain a coalition and to work with our allies,″ Cohen said. ``But the United States is also, if necessary and in compelling circumstances, willing to act alone.″

In his travels throughout Southeast Asia this week Cohen has kept abreast of developments in Iraq. In the interview today, he said it was premature to discuss using military force in the latest standoff over U.N. weapons inspections.

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