Cobra Gold war games launched in Thailand as region looks for clues on Trump's policy in Asia

US Admiral Harry Harris and Thai Chief of Defence Forces Surapong Suwana-Adth (centre) posing for a picture with other commanders during the opening ceremony for Exercise Cobra Gold in Chonburi, Thailand, on Feb 14, 2017.
US Admiral Harry Harris and Thai Chief of Defence Forces Surapong Suwana-Adth (centre) posing for a picture with other commanders during the opening ceremony for Exercise Cobra Gold in Chonburi, Thailand, on Feb 14, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK - The chief of the United States Pacific Command opened the region's biggest annual multilateral war games on Tuesday (Feb 14) morning, as Asian leaders look for clues on future American military commitment to the region under the new administration of President Donald Trump.

Admiral Harry Harris, the most senior US military officer to visit Thailand since a 2014 coup ushered in junta rule in the kingdom, launched the 10-day exercise involving over 8,000 troops from 29 countries, including Singapore.

The US has sent some 3,600 troops - about the same as last year - to Cobra Gold, which is now in its 36th year. Like in previous years, it will involve a senior leader seminar, humanitarian civic assistance projects as well as a field training exercise.

The visit of Admiral Harris has created some anticipation of an uptick in Thai-US relations, which suffered in the wake of the 2014 coup as Washington cut military aid and made frequent calls for Bangkok to return to civilian rule.

The Thai military administration has not committed to an election date despite floating possible timeframes over the past three years. US Ambassador Glyn Davies was even accused of lese majeste - a serious crime in Thailand that allows for someone to be jailed for up to 15 years for each count of royal insult.

At the launch of Cobra Gold on Tuesday at Sattahip Royal Thai Marine Corps base, Mr Davies called Cobra Gold "the crown jewel of our enduring bilateral alliance and a symbol of America's unwavering commitment to the peace and prosperity of both the kingdom and the region".

"We stand with the Kingdom of Thailand as we have for 10 generations," he told the participants and guests which included diplomats. "We look forward to Thailand's return to (a) strengthened sustainable democratic system so the country and our alliance can reach its full potential."

Admiral Harris is scheduled to meet Thai premier Prayut Chan-o-cha later on Tuesday.

Ambassador Davies, asked by reporters after the ceremony about US policy in the region, asked "everybody to be a little bit patient" as US President Trump fills the ranks of his administration. But he pledged that the US was a "reliable" partner to the region.

Dr Ian Storey, an analyst from Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, told The Straits Times that while the visit of Admiral Harris has "important symbolic value", it is not so clear "whether it represents a reset in Thai-US relations".

"Admiral Harris is an important figure… but he follows policy. He does not make policy," he said.

tanhy@sph.com.sg