The Cobra Gold joint military exercise this week and the inaugural Asean-US summit in southern California next week against the backdrop of the recently inked Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade area reflect the standings and priorities of Bangkok and Washington. Thailand's international engagements are increasingly on the back foot, unable to plough ahead and prone to expediency because of its political troubles at home. The US, on the hand, now has a coherent and mutually reinforcing geopolitical and geo-economic agenda for the Asia-Pacific but it may not be sustained because of impending leadership change.
Established in 1982 as the culmination of the Thai-US treaty alliance in the heyday of the Cold War, Cobra Gold is one of the largest military training exercises in the world. It now encompasses 27 countries in the region and a combined force of nearly an entire division, with Thailand as host from the outset. It is Thailand's most prominent military and security platform, the bedrock of its defence posture. Until recently, the Thai military has received more international recognition from Cobra Gold than other military and security activities and initiatives.
But Cobra Gold has been in the doldrums because of Thai domestic politics and Washington's relatively high expectations for a better democratic performance.
Washington undeniably has double or even multiple standards. It is a bedfellow of repressive regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or even Vietnam, but it remains tough on Thailand's military government.
However, the US and many other countries do not compare Thailand to these autocratic countries. When they think of Thailand, the idea of progressive democracies, such as Indonesia and Myanmar or even South Korea, comes to mind. Thus, while a host of Cobra Gold's participating countries are non-democratic and outright repressive regimes,
Thailand is being held to a higher standard because its political trajectory has descended the most from verging on democratic consolidation two decades ago to military dictatorship today. People outside Thailand expected more from Thai democracy and feel jilted by the rise and consolidating military-authoritarian rule. Hence their criticisms tend to be harsher vis-à-vis other countries.
To be sure, the military-to-military component of the Thai-US treaty relationship remains strong but the overall bilateral relationship has been politicised and stuck at a time when regional geopolitical dynamics are more fluid and alarming. Cobra Gold is now more crucial in the region than ever. With major regional players in varying capacities included, such as China and India, it has the potential to convert from a collective defence alliance into a cooperative regional security framework to reduce mounting tensions.
However, until Thailand can get its house in order and start to lead in regional activities again, Cobra Gold is likely to remain on the rocks, down but not out and scaled back to softer and more functional areas of regional military cooperation. The US is unlikely to abandon Cobra Gold as long as there is hope Thailand will regain democratic rule. Thailand will want to keep hosting as long as others come. Washington needs Cobra Gold for its geo-strategy, while Thailand needs it for international legitimacy.
For similar reasons, the first-ever Asean-US summit is Washington's inroad into Southeast Asia where geopolitical rivalry is rising. The US and China have deep, dense bilateral cooperation on trade, investment and a wide range of other interdependent activities. It is via third parties that Washington and Beijing are in contention, most conspicuously the dispute between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea. The latter, like Thailand, is a US treaty ally.
The first Asean-US summit will shift the geopolitical balance in the region slightly and more if it is sustained. Underscoring the Obama administration's geostrategic rebalance to Asia, it will make Beijing work harder to bring Asean on side or at least to prevent an Asean-US axis that outflanks China. As US President Barack Obama is in his "lame duck" last year in office, the summit has come too late but perhaps not too little, if it can be kept on track after the US presidential election in November.
From a vantage point in Bangkok, what is noticeable about the Asean-US summit is the criticism of the Obama government for inviting Thailand's coup-induced military dictatorship to participate. For Thais who are aware of politics in the neighbourhood, Myanmar was always the problematic country that posed challenges for Asean's international meetings and dealings with the European Union and the US. Thailand used to cover for Myanmar. Now international scrutiny is on Thailand, and its military government is fully exposed.
Indeed, Thailand's democratic descent has incurred incalculable opportunity costs. On the trade front, because of domestic conflict over free-trade agreements, Thailand never really figured in the TPP negotiations. Four countries from Asean are in TPP (Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore) with eight others from across the Pacific, accounting for more than 40% of world trade. There is a growing likelihood that Vietnam will benefit at Thailand's expense, especially in certain sectors such as automobiles. Japan, a TPP member which uses Thailand as a hub for much of its production networks and value chains, wants Bangkok to join the TPP. But none of the major players in Thailand, let alone the government or its commerce ministry, is ready to start a genuine discussion about the pros and cons.
In the Thai sphere, the TPP is reminiscent of the Thai-US FTA negotiations from 12 years ago that crashed and burned amid abuse of power and politicisation. Thailand's trade policy has been hobbled and handicapped since, while the world has moved on. The TPP is now the next best free-trade area to the WTO's multilateral trade negotiations under the Doha Round. We need to face the fact that Doha is dead where trade is concerned. Thailand needs to think about how to grow its economy in the future unless it wants to sulk in false complacency in a self-imposed inward-looking shell.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.