Cobra Gold drills depoliticise Thai-US ties

Cobra Gold drills depoliticise Thai-US ties

Cobra Gold 2018, Day 5 at Hat Yao Beach, Chon Buri province. Thai, US and Korean forces staged a landing and 'invasion' of a village for civil affairs programmes. (File photo)
Cobra Gold 2018, Day 5 at Hat Yao Beach, Chon Buri province. Thai, US and Korean forces staged a landing and 'invasion' of a village for civil affairs programmes. (File photo)

The 37th Cobra Gold annual multilateral military exercise ended last week with one major outcome -- the depoliticising of Thai-US relations which have been held captive since the May 2014 coup.

The body language and comments of Admiral Harry B Harris Jr, commander of the United States Pacific Command, during talks with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon and other Thai leaders, indicated that Thai-US military relations are moving to a new high. Thailand's long-standing grudge against the US government has subsided.

The US and Thailand are now strengthening relations through military ties -- the pattern that has shaped their traditional alliance for decades but faced some hiccoughs during the Obama administration, which criticised the military's seizure of power and joined the military training in smaller form. It is a reversal of US policy during the Obama administration.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

At the news conference last week, Adm Harris was succinct in suggesting that in the future the annual Cobra Gold manoeuvres should look for ways to "increase the complexity and scope of the exercise every year". This year, humanitarian and disaster relief was added to Cobra Gold.

Next year, the level of participation by both Thailand and the US will be increased to demonstrate the growing importance of the joint exercise, which helps "multiple countries to improve their readiness to fight", according to Adm Harris.

Gen Prayut has expressed Thailand's support for the US role in the Indo-Pacific. The region was given a big boost and new meaning when US President Donald Trump highlighted the close cooperation of US allies and friends -- India, Japan and Australia -- in strategic areas, including maritime security.

In this collaboration, Adm Harris hailed India's role in the Indo-Pacific. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to speak on this topic at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June.

Thailand was among the first Asean members to back the Indo-Pacific. Gen Prayut welcomed the idea when Mr Trump brought it up at the Asean Summit in the Philippines last November. Other Asean countries are still ambivalent, fearing it is aimed at containing China. Thailand wants the Indo-Pacific to be an inclusive region where countries, big or small, cooperate in all dimensions including maritime security.

This time conspicuously absent from Adm Harris' speech and comments was the political situation in Thailand since the May 2014 coup. During a previous visit, Adm Harris raised eyebrows with his comments on Thai politics. Thai-US ties had been frozen before Mr Trump took power due to the US perception that democracy is losing ground and civil liberties are being restricted here.

The Obama administration was unkind to the military government. With Mr Trump in the White House, though, Thai-US ties have quickly been revitalised, which led to Gen Prayut's visit to Washington in October.

It is safe to say that the current Thai military leaders have renewed faith in the Thai-US alliance. In the past 13 months, the top brass of the two sides have met and reached a new understanding. Doubtless, during the visit, Adm Harris praised Thailand's role in regional security and expressed an understanding of the country's desire to follow the roadmap to a strong and sustainable democracy.

It is notable that Thai and US military leaders are working hard to promote understanding and cooperation to their own peoples.

A recent study by John Blaxland and Greg Raymond, Tipping the Balance in Southeast Asia? Thailand, the United States and China, revealed a big surprise from the Thai military elite and officials. They saw the military threat from the US as greater than that from any other major power, including China. The two scholars at Australia National University spent three years on the study and interviewed as many as 1800 Thai military officials.

Mr Blaxland and Mr Raymond put forward two hypotheses related to this finding. First was the fear of the US interfering in Thailand's domestic politics, and second was historical amnesia pertaining to the US role during the Cold War and the associated China threat. They found that Thai military officials rated as high the ability of the great power to interfere in Thai politics. Clearly, Washington's vigorous condemnation of the 2014 coup was a major reason for this.

Also, they found that Thai military officials have limited knowledge and mixed feelings about the country's Cold War enmeshment with the US. Some two fifths of respondents were unaware of the Southeast Asian Treaty Organisation (Seato), despite the 1954 Manila Treaty Pact, Thailand's alliance treaty with the United States, having established Seato.

In contrast, many Thai military officers see China as a source of protection. The survey also found that the Sino-Thai background of Thai military officers does not shape attitudes toward China and the US.

Their study provides new insights into and understanding of the nature of Thai-US relations amid the rise of China. During the survey, the region encountered new developments, including the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and China's announcement of the mega infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative. As the balance of power shifts, the US and China are wooing small states in Southeast Asia, each of which has to respond to coexist with these major powers.

Thailand was chosen for the study as it has unique ties with the US, and the two are marking 200 years of diplomatic relations this year. As the second-largest economy in Asean, Thailand is also the largest economy in mainland Southeast Asia and occupies the pivotal position of linking maritime and continental Southeast Asia.

The study makes six recommendations to promote Thai-US relations: modulate approaches for advocating democracy; support more historical reflection; foster cultural and linguistic sensitivity; support Asean; avoid zero-sum views on Thailand and China; and engage on environmental challenges.

More than officials from both sides would like to admit, this groundbreaking study has played an important role in changing US attitudes toward Thailand. The findings shatter the stereotyped thinking concerning Thai-US relations and their value vis-a-vis China.

Now it is up to Thailand to discern ways to engage all great powers, particularly the US and China, to ensure peace and stability in the region.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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