BANGKOK – One of Asia’s largest war games kicks off in Thailand on Tuesday with scaled back U.S. involvement, highlighting tensions between the longtime allies over Thailand’s lack of democracy at a time of growing Chinese influence in Southeast Asia.
Some 8,500 soldiers from seven nations — Thailand, the U.S., Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia — will take part in Cobra Gold’s core activities over the 11 days of exercises, according to a Thai military statement. A further 21 nations will participate in reduced roles, including China as part of a humanitarian assistance session.
Though the U.S. sees Cobra Gold as “an integral part of the U.S. commitment to strengthen engagement in the region,” for a second straight year it is turning up with a reduced contingent, said Melissa Sweeney, a spokeswoman at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok. “The 2016 exercise will remain reduced in size to limit the type of activities it contains to reflect our concerns with Thailand’s political developments,” she said.
The U.S. is trying to balance its need to nurture a key alliance with showing displeasure over Thailand’s May 2014 coup and the military government’s lack of progress on holding elections. It is a balance that Washington has had to strike before in Cobra Gold’s 35-year history due to Thailand’s frequent military takeovers, though one now complicated by China’s increasing assertiveness in the region.
“Both sides have become used to dealing with Thailand’s (numerous coups) and the need for Washington to distance itself from military regimes,” said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai. “Obama is walking a fine tightrope of balancing U.S. interests with U.S. values. Full participation would anger human rights lobbies. No participation might distance the Thai military from the U.S.”
Thailand is a non-NATO ally that served as a staging ground for American forces during the Vietnam War, and the Pentagon continues to value its strategic access to the nation’s airfields and ports. Still, Washington immediately condemned the latest putsch, Thailand’s second in eight years, and was required by law to cut some military aid to the country. The junta has said it will rule for at least another 18 months.
“As deep and broad as our partnership is today, it will grow stronger still when, as the prime minister has affirmed, Thailand returns to elected governance,” U.S. Ambassador Glyn Davies said Tuesday at the opening ceremony. “With a strengthened, sustainable democratic system, Thailand’s regional leadership role, and our alliance, can reach its full potential.”
As the U.S. sought to distance itself from the generals, China pushed for greater political, economic and military engagement. Thailand and China held their first joint military exercises last year, while the Thai Navy has been pushing for a $1 billion deal to buy three Chinese submarines. China is investing in Thai railways as part of its “One Belt, One Road” initiative to revive ancient trade routes.
Thailand further risked its international reputation for Beijing last year when it ignored criticism from the United Nations and rights groups and deported more than 100 ethnic Uighurs to China as well as two dissidents who were nearing asylum resettlement in third countries. Questions have also been raised over what role the junta played in the disappearances of a pair of Chinese exiles whose families say they were abducted from Thailand and returned to the China.
“China-Thailand relations, which have a good foundation to start with, have been developing rather rapidly in the past two years,” said Zhang Mingliang, a professor at the Southeast Asia Research Institute under Jinan University in Guangzhou. “Chinese investment, now in the shape of the OBOR initiative, is being fully embraced by the Thai government,” he said, referring to the One Belt, One Road project.
The move toward Beijing appears to have had some impact on the U.S. stance. A December visit by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel lacked the public criticism of the junta that he made on a visit 11 months earlier. Junta leader and now Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha is among the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nation leaders invited to California next week for a regional summit with Barack Obama.
“Thailand is very much a part of the whole of Washington’s Southeast Asia strategy,” said Jon Grevatt, an analyst at IHS Jane’s in Bangkok. “They regard military and defense relationships with not just Thailand but Vietnam, Indonesia as part of a multifaceted strategy that also involves trade and investment, diplomatic ties, education, culture.”
For all the talk of not losing Thailand to China, Grevatt said Thailand knows it can’t lose the U.S.
“The U.S. wields tremendous influence in global trade and global defense and inter-relations between governments,” he said. “To burn its bridges with the U.S. would cause all kinds of problems for Thailand at a time when the country’s economy is struggling. Yes China is great, but China’s economy is also struggling.”