Since the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House, U.S. policy toward Southeast Asia has remained uncertain. Leaders around the world have become anxious about whether the United States will continue to engage with the global community or adopt an isolationist foreign policy to please American conservatives.
Amid this anxiety, the U.S. recently announced the launch of this year’s Cobra Gold military exercise, due to begin Tuesday. Cobra Gold has long represented the bedrock of relations between the U.S. and Thailand, which can be traced back to the Cold War period. The exercise, initiated in 1980 and one of the largest in the Asia-Pacific region, involves 13,000 troops from 24 Asian-Pacific countries. They meet annually and conduct joint military exercises, bringing in large paychecks and technological transfers to the Thai Army.
But the 2014 coup in Thailand has strained Bangkok’s relationship with Washington. The U.S. was compelled to penalize Thailand for the coup, initially by suspending $4.7 million in military aid. In addition, Washington downgraded the level of Cobra Gold in an effort to push for democracy in Thailand — a step that paved the way for Thailand to slide into the warm embrace of China as the country’s new provider of legitimacy.
Undoubtedly, the continued rise of China has posed a challenge to the security position of the U.S. in Southeast Asia. The conflict in the South China Sea has threatened to disrupt peace and order in the region. The U.S. and China have become locked in a subtle, but intensifying, competition for increased influence in Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia. A dilemma has emerged for Washington: Should it push for democracy in Thailand but risk losing its influence, or work with the Thai junta to keep up in its rivalry with Beijing?
Therefore, the upcoming Cobra Gold exercise is significant both in terms of the renewed U.S. interest in Thailand’s domestic crisis as well as Trump’s strategy of fending off Chinese influence in the region. The exercise will last 10 days. Leading the U.S. team is Adm. Harry B. Harris of the U.S. Pacific Command, who will launch the 36th Cobra Gold exercise at Thailand’s Utapao airbase. Harris’s presence this year will send a strong message reflecting Trump’s seriousness over his security policy in Southeast Asia.
Harris’ visit to Bangkok is also crucial because it unveils the U.S. view of Thailand’s protracted political turmoil. It has been more than two years now since the last visit by top-level U.S. officials to Thailand. In early 2015, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel paid a visit to Bangkok. He held talks with then-Foreign Minister Gen. Thanasak Patimaprakorn, former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and deposed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. His visit turned controversial after he urged the military government to lift martial law and return power to the Thai people soon.
Russel’s comments were aggressively rejected by the junta. Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha branded Russel’s action as interference in Thai domestic affairs. The Thai Committee of Foreign Affairs issued a summons to the U.S. charge d’affaires in Bangkok, Patrick Murphy, despite the fact that it had no right to do so. The Thai reaction caused much concern for Washington about its impact on the shifting game in the region’s politics. In return, the State Department summoned the Thai ambassador to Washington, Pisan Manawapat, warning that the drama could have huge implications for the bilateral relationship.
The U.S. hopes that Harris’ presence at Cobra Gold will help heal the rift with Thailand. The U.S. has been paying special attention to the warming of the Sino-Thai relationship and was starting to fear that it could affect the traditional ties it has with Bangkok. Already, Thailand and China have solidified their military ties on top of their friendly economic relations.
In early 2010, China proposed to Thai leaders holding joint defense exercises and military exchanges, aiming to catch up with Washington’s military relations with Thailand. Although progressively advancing over the years, these exercises have quantitatively and qualitatively lagged far behind U.S.-Thai security relations. The People’s Liberation Army still lacks the U.S. gear and expertise that Thailand has for many years enjoyed. In other words, China does not possess the same military capabilities as those of the U.S., and lacks the sophisticated military know-how to lure Thailand away from its American friend.
It may be true that overall Sino-Thai relations have greatly improved over the years and that the scale of Chinese military exercises with Thailand will probably increase in the future. But Thailand’s relationship with China is different from that with the U.S. It is much less about security and more about politics and business. Although China has rapidly modernized its army in recent decades and augments its military budget annually, it will take a while before the country can confidently challenge U.S. military ties with Thailand. In any case, Thailand has to come to grips with the tough question of whether to allow its defense relations with China to be similar to Thai-U.S. military relations.
This year’s Cobra Gold will see an increase in the number of participating officials. More than 10,000 persons are expected to show up for the exercise. According to media reports, the emphasis this year will be humanitarian operations and disaster management. But the real message will be re-engagement by the U.S. with Southeast Asia under the Trump administration.
While the return of the U.S. to Southeast Asia is needed to maintain the region’s balance of power, it may not positively contribute to the Thai political conflict. This shows that the Thai junta has been successful in implementing a policy of playing the U.S. and China off against each other. Unfortunately, a softer approach by the U.S. toward Thailand will boost the junta’s confidence in prolonging its repressive rule.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.