US-Thai Cobra Gold drills wither at 40
The 40th iteration of Cobra Gold (CG), which ended last week, was supposed to be the best year ever for the four-decades-old Thai and US joint military exercises. But it was not to be. Blame it on the Covid-19 pandemic or the menace of smartphones and social media spreading fake news about the true nature of the region's largest multinational military exercise.
For the local press, the most memorable moment of the CG exercise, which should have appeared on the front pages, was missing -- the time-honoured tradition of drinking a cobra's blood together during the joint exercises. Sad but true, all the publicity related to this year's CG was conspicuously absent with the consent of both countries.
Indeed, the pandemic is a delicate time for further development of bilateral ties as almost every item has been politicised to the extreme. The vaccines donated by the US are a case in point. Politicians, doctors, diplomats and other stakeholders used the US donation as ammunition to attack political opponents while human rights activists and protesters exploited the vaccines' late arrival and lack of information to undermine the government. Instant heroes were created out of thin air and for no reason. Some news went viral without an iota of truth claiming a particular person or more was behind the scenes in pushing for the American donation. Luckily, the US embassy has been quick to respond to the misinformation and fake news.
More than officials would like to admit, this phenomenon had a ripple effect on last week's CG, spawning fears that it would spin off into an anti-CG and anti-Thai-US relations campaign, especially pertaining to importing foreign virus infections. Indeed, in the past several weeks, visiting US signatories have been closely monitored by those who wanted to criticise the government, especially those related to vaccine diplomacy. Lest we forget, last July the photo of a five-star American general undergoing a swab for a Covid-19 test went viral causing embarrassment to both the host and the guest. Earlier fake news said he was exempted from the Covid-19 test.
The fact that both countries agreed to downplay CG is also indicative of the value of the time-tested combined exercises. After all, the two countries face no common enemies these days despite the drills, which once served as the glue for the region's most valuable allies. Today, their common interests are fewer than before and secondary to the broader US strategy in the region.
The Thai military has a clear view that the trajectory of the Thai-US alliance is not getting any stronger. The challenge in the years ahead is to maintain these delicate military ties amid the growing US-China rivalry. In fact, it is not an overstatement to say that the Thai-US alliance is not as strong as both countries have thought all along even without any deliberate attempt to dismantle it. Interestingly, these views come mainly from retired generals who took part in CG and appreciated its value in preparing Thai soldiers, who have never fought in any major war, for conflict situations. Combined exercises with more experienced American soldiers and those of other nations give Thai troops much needed knowhow both in terms of interoperability and communication skills.
According to Prof Greg Laymond of the Australian National University, CG is valuable to the Thai-US alliance because it demonstrates that Thailand is an asset for the US. "It shows that the US Indo-Pacific Command can send forces to Thailand if required," he pointed out.
For the US, CG shows that the US has a large network of friends and allies across the region and can assemble a large number of countries to work together, Prof Laymond posited. That much is clear.
The old comfort of having a large number of American troops helping to spur the local economy with media spin is long gone, especially during the pandemic. For common folk, hundreds of new schools, healthcare buildings, wells and other facilities assigned during each year's CG exercises remain the only tangible testimony to mutual interests.
Without the past enthusiasm and appreciation of the CG, Thai veterans have contended that the drills, while remaining pivotal, will not be strengthened unless there are critical circumstances to do so. The ongoing exercises which focus on humanitarian and disaster management will become the dominant theme. After all, the US has more options now thanks to its much improved relations with Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations. Washington's extraordinary attention and favour to Hanoi have caused high blood pressure among Thailand's top military leaders.
Given the nature of threats to the US global strategy, Thailand's geostrategic location is ideal, as it is the only place in mainland Southeast Asia that gives the US unlimited access, which has benefited greatly the US capacity to increase its interoperability and familiarity in the diverse terrains in the region. However, this guarantee is uncertain given the country's political uncertainty.
For the record, this year's iteration was the smallest in terms of scale and numbers of troops. The US only dispatched 400-plus soldiers while Thailand as a co-host had one thousand-plus soldiers. In normal times, this would indicate a downgrading tendency which has been demanded by human right activists and non-governmental organisations. That helps explain why both governments wanted to play down the exercises.
Prior to CG, there was a flurry of diplomatic activity involving the visits of senior US officials to flag the importance of the Thai-US alliance. The visit of Wendy Sherman, Deputy Secretary of State, in early June and the UN ambassador Lynda Thomas-Greenfield last week were not as powerful as the visit by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to Singapore and Vietnam. Both Ms Sherman's and Ms Greenfield's trips were seen as attempts to pacify Thailand. After all, Vice President Kamala Harris' scheduled trips to Singapore and Vietnam this month serve as a barometer of Thailand's eroding value as a US ally.
It is hoped that the just-ended CG was a special and isolated case. If this trend continues in the coming years in the post Covid-19 world, the value of CG will recede fast, therefore impacting Thailand's security dependence on the US.
The phrase that Thailand is an "old and great friend" is a grandiose illusion, which needs a shake-up if the US and Thailand are going to have meaningful engagement in the years to come.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.
A veteran journalist on regional affairs
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs