Thursday, February 16, 2017

Cobra Gold military drill offers a glimpse into Washington’s Asia-Pacific strategy

The 36th Cobra Gold military exercises, the largest annual multilateral drill in Asia, was staged Tuesday at Thailand's Utapao airbase. Being the bedrock of military ties between Washington and Bangkok, it is one of the crucial indicators to test the US-Thailand relationship. Since it was first staged in 1982, Cobra Gold has never been suspended or postponed. In addition, the military exercise has even developed from a strictly bilateral activity into a multilateral event, involving nearly 30 nations in the region this year. Cobra Gold is also considered by some observers as a barometer for US' policy in the Asia-Pacific region.

Recently, a number of analysis papers such as "Cobra Gold set to shift order in Southeast Asia" or "Cobra Gold 2017 will be watched for Trump's commitment to Asia" have emerged. Yet these predictions exaggerate Thailand's position in the US global strategy. 

Given that Trump will put "America first," his strategic priority will, without a doubt, focus on US domestic issues. Washington's major allies come next. Thailand, one of US' secondary allies, will hardly play a decisive role in the White House's global tactics. Especially when the tone of future Sino-US relationship is not set, it is impossible for the White House to make explicit judgments or firm decisions on its policies in Southeast Asia, or the Asia-Pacific region.

The Thai military coup in 2014 resulted in a chill in relations between Washington and Bangkok. Due to the US core values of democracy and human right, the country will not allow the Thai military to be in power for long. Nevertheless, Thailand's current Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has clearly stated that now is only a transition period, he does not want to extend his power and will pursue democracy, despite reasons not to rush the process, including the death of the Thai king last year. Therefore, Bangkok has not fully deviated from US ideology, which provided Washington with a reason to take a step back from interfering in Thailand's current situation.

In actuality, the US-Thai relationship is deeply rooted in the US strategy for the entire Asia-Pacific region. In another word, it is closely related to the strategic game between Washington and Beijing. 

As a strategic fulcrum of US military presence in the Indo-China Peninsula, the most important role for Thailand is to guarantee Washington's strategic presence in the region where Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean meet, especially in containing Beijing's westward tactic. That being said, how US-Thailand ties will develop depends not on how Washington treats Bangkok, but on how the White House sees China. 

If Trump plans to further enhance Washington's containment of Beijing, the political situation in Thailand won't become an obstacle in their alliance. However, after witnessing little achievements in the US rebalance to Asia-Pacific region despite years of efforts, Washington started to waver in its methods to deal with China. Such hesitation is now revealed in US-Thai relations. The US was not satisfied with Bangkok, but did not suspend Cobra Gold after the 2014 coup, which showed Washington's intention to have more than one string in its bow. 

US military now has more say in the White House after Trump was sworn in. Due to Pentagon's consistent stance to promote military collaboration with Bangkok, it is routine for Washington to answer the call from US military before its global strategy is determined. Furthermore, it is also a natural phenomenon to see a certain degree of resurgence in the bilateral military drill now after it reached its lowest ebb years ago.

The author is an associate research fellow at the National Institute of International Strategy, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

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