Thailand, like most other nations in Southeast Asia, strives to maintain a balance between the United States and China to ensure its sovereignty. After the bloodless coup in 2014 that brought Prayut Chan-o-cha to power, the American alliance with Thailand withered, while Thailand’s relations with China flourished. But now that the Cobra Gold military exercise of 2022 is approaching, the balance of power seems to be tipping back in Washington’s favor.
As I discussed in one previous article For The Diplomat, relations between China and Thailand have recently been far from smooth. And Nikkei Asia analysis published a few weeks ago underscores this observation, stating that Thailand’s indifference to China’s railway project has significantly hurt China’s belt and road ambitions. Divergent priorities, such as Thailand’s reopening plans versus China’s persistent “zero COVID” policy, have pulled the two Asian brothers further apart.
In contrast, ties between the United States and Thailand have improved significantly since the Trump administration, largely due to Trump’s lack of interest in promoting democracy. Many assumed that President Joe Biden, as a Democrat who served directly under Obama, would deviate from Trump’s approach and place great emphasis on the democracy aspect. Biden, however, has maintained a significant level of continuity to Trump’s Asia policy. While Thailand was excluded From the long-awaited “Democracy Summit”, the Biden administration has uncharacteristically refrained from criticizing Thailand’s internal affairs to avoid disturbing the military-backed elites in Bangkok. It is clear that under the Biden presidency, the United States is seeking to strike a balance between geostrategic interests and the promotion of democracy. And as strategic competition with China escalates, the United States will most likely pay less attention to Thailand’s “undemocratic” behavior.
This year’s Cobra Gold, a long-running annual military exercise that emerged as a bilateral exercise between Washington and Bangkok before evolving into a full-fledged multinational event, is scheduled to be held in Thailand’s central and eastern provinces from February 20 to the beginning. of March. China has been included in Cobra Gold since 2014yet its role has been limited to humanitarian operations.
In contrast to the “light year exercise” in 2021, which focused on personnel planning and humanitarian tasks, the scope of 2022 was Cobra Gold originally set to be full and heavy, with the inclusion of live fire drills with air, sea and land forces. As reported by the Thai media, over 10,000 American soldiers – the largest number in a decade – were expected to join.
Nevertheless, the rapid proliferation of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has forced down staffing and training activities. An increase in infections in Japan linked to US bases in Okinawa has left the U.S. military with an image problem, and Thai authorities are not ready to take risks that could further jeopardize Thailand’s revival plans for tourism. A military source confirmed that a total of 3,600 soldiers – 1,900 from Thailand and 1,700 from the United States and elsewhere – will participate in this year’s exercise, while large-scale exercises involving evacuations and amphibious landings are canceled.
What matters more than the inevitable downscaling is the high level of U.S. engagement with Thailand over the past few months. Commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, CEO John Aquilino, highlighted the importance of a robust Cobra Gold exercise to maintain regional peace during his visit to Bangkok last October. He added that he would like to see an expansion of Cobra Gold and maritime cooperation between the United States and Thailand, with the involvement of warships when Thailand is ready.
Secretary of State Derek Chollet landed in Bangkok shortly after the departure of CEO Aquilino to discuss strategic issues with senior Thai officials. In December, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to visit Bangkok as part of his Southeast Asia tour in a blatant attempt to counter China’s influence, but canceled the visit after a press officer traveling with the US delegation tested positive. for COVID-19. The flash was expected to reaffirm the US-Thailand alliance and talk about the “free and open Indo-Pacific”, the Mekong issue and the Myanmar conflict. In parallel with Blinken’s planned visit, Thailand’s Chief of Defense, General Chalermpol Srisawasdi, took a nine-day trip to the United States – the first trip abroad since he joined in September 2020 – to meet with Pentagon officials, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley.
These high-profile exchanges coincide with the Thai Air Force planning to buy eight US-made F-35 stealth jets. A budget of 13.8 billion baht ($ 413.67 million) to buy the first four jets starting in fiscal year 2023 has recently been approved in principle by the Thai cabinet.
Some Thai observers are concerned that Thailand’s rebuilt security alliance with the United States could send the wrong signals to China. This was one of the reasons mentioned in one letter submitted by a protest group to the US Embassy in Bangkok earlier in January, calling for the cancellation of the 2022 Cobra Gold. Fears are not far off given the obvious superpower competition, rising tensions at potential Asian hotspots (Korean Peninsula, East China Sea, South China Sea, Taiwan and Myanmar) and the formation of military pacts such as AUKUS (and it is extensions) and Russia-China-North Korea partnership.
At this stage, many details about the 2022 Cobra Gold are still unclear. But one thing is for sure: this year’s exercise will, more than any other year, be closely monitored by China.