US, Thai officials planning Cobra Gold exercise despite May coup
By ERIK SLAVIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 10, 2014
YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — The United States and Thailand will scale down next year’s Cobra Gold military exercise because of the rift in relations that followed Thailand’s military coup earlier this year.
“In light of the current political situation, the U.S. government has reduced the scale of the exercise and increased its focus on non-lethal activities, such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok said in a statement Friday.
Many consider the multinational exercise to be not only important military training but also an instrument of U.S. regional diplomacy.
Despite some uncertainty over the future of next year’s exercise, logistical planning had been ongoing and a bilateral conference is planned for later this month, State Department officials said.
More than 13,000 servicemembers from the U.S., Thailand, South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia participated in this year’s Cobra Gold, which started as a bilateral drill in 1982. China also participated in humanitarian projects; several other nations sent observers.
“[Cobra Gold] is the jewel in the crown in terms of America’s strategic image in the region,” said Anthony Davis, a Bangkok-based security analyst for IHS-Jane’s. “It’s hugely important in terms of America being viewed as a cooperative and benign military force.”
There would have been no question about holding Cobra Gold in 2015 had the Thai military’s May 22 coup not left Washington with a dilemma.
Immediately after Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha declared the takeover, the U.S. suspended $10.5 million in foreign assistance and canceled a series of exercises and Thai military officer visits.
The Foreign Assistance Act requires some types of aid to be cut after a coup, though the Obama administration has used leeway in the act’s interpretation to keep some aid intact in Egypt, which also experienced a military takeover.
The U.S. also suspended the International Military Education and Training program, under which the U.S. has trained tens of thousands of Thai officers, according to a June Congressional Research Service report.
The coup’s strongest support comes from affluent and middle-class citizens who viewed the previous government as rife with corruption. It is largely a continuation of the same political dysfunction that came to a head in 2006, when former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a coup.
This time, it was Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck, who was removed from office.
After the latest coup, U.S. officials promptly issued warnings and calls for democratic elections as soon as possible.
“While we value our long friendship with the Thai people, this act will have negative implications for the U.S.-Thai relationship, especially for our relationship with the Thai military,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in May. “We are reviewing our military and other assistance and engagements, consistent with U.S. law.”
Elections won’t be held until after October 2015, Prayuth announced in June.
Meanwhile, the Thai military has detained political opponents, restricted media reports and even banned George Orwell’s “1984,” the dystopian story about a thought-controlling dictatorship.
Despite U.S. warnings, most analysts say, the Thai junta isn’t terribly concerned about losing U.S. support. When it came to Cobra Gold, Thailand actually had most of the leverage in the decision, Davis said. Thailand is one of the United States’ oldest and most capable security allies in Asia; it has cooperated extensively in recent years on counterterrorism and disaster relief. Both countries have recently discussed setting up a regional hub in Thailand for humanitarian assistance and relief operations.
“The access that Thailand provides to military facilities, particularly the strategically located and well-equipped Utapao airbase, is considered invaluable to U.S. strategic planners,” the Congressional Research Service report said.
Thailand is also one of the few countries in Southeast Asia that doesn’t have a territorial dispute with China.
Beijing has been discussing expanding its military training with the Thais and possibly expanding it into a multinational exercise of its own, Davis said. Although the U.S. conducts some military training with the Chinese, the two nations remain at odds over their interpretations of international law.
China’s sea and air standoffs with several countries in the region and its declaration of an air-defense identification zone over Japanese-administered islands have left U.S. planners wary of Beijing’s regional ambitions. Those concerns make Cobra Gold that much more important in the eyes of U.S. officials.
“For this thing to go down the tubes would be, frankly, a disaster — and, of course, a disaster that would not be lost on the Chinese,” Davis said.