China makes modest debut at Cobra Gold

But still no confirmation if it will be full participant

WITH columns of soldiers lined up alongside a display of tanks, Asia's largest military exercise was declared open yesterday.

Conspicuous by its absence at the launch ceremony was China, the biggest talking point of this year's Cobra Gold war games, which is making its debut with 17 soldiers in a humanitarian project.

Unlike the seven countries represented at the northern Thailand army camp yesterday, it was not a full participant. At least not yet.

Major-General Wittaya Wachirakul, deputy director of the exercise, remained non-committal when asked if China would eventually become a full participant of the two-week-long exercise, which started some 30 years ago in what was seen then as a demonstration of military resolve against the communist threat. "It's up to them, whether they want to be involved or not," he told The Straits Times. "And we also have to talk to the United States too, which is a co-host."

China's participation grew out of conversations between Thailand and China last year, he revealed. Thailand's military felt it "would be a good way to reduce tension… in the region", he said.

US Pacific Command chief Samuel Locklear made no mention of China's entry in his address, but mentioned that each country's presence demonstrates its "resolve to support peace and stability in the region". China's growing military assertiveness is unnerving countries in the region, in particular several Asian states disputing its claims over maritime territories. Apart from claiming a wide swathe of the South China Sea and requiring foreign vessels entering those waters to register with it, it also demarcated an air defence identification zone over the East China Sea which contains islands contested by both Japan and China.

Over the past three decades, Cobra Gold has evolved to include disaster relief and rescue operations. This year, over 8,000 troops from the US, Thailand, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and Malaysia will attempt to enforce peace in a fictitious country ravaged by civil war, genocide and typhoon.

Singapore is sending a 61-member contingent which will also build a multi-purpose hall and educate locals about health care. Another 20 countries like Australia, India, Laos and Vietnam will observe the exercise. Myanmar, which was admitted as an observer for the first time last year as the US sought to nudge the former pariah state along the path of reform, retained its observer status this year.

China will be involved in a school-building project in Phitsanulok province of northern Thailand.

Dr William Choong, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore, noted: "In recent years, the Chinese have finessed their military engagements with the region to focus on so-called non-traditional threats, for example, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, military medicine and officer exchanges.

"This is expected (as) China cannot countenance discussion of so-called 'hard' security issues like sovereignty, military expenditure and territorial issues."

Institute of Southeast Asian Studies analyst Ian Storey saw China's Cobra Gold involvement as part of a decade-long "defence diplomacy" effort.

"It's important to keep things in perspective," he added. "China's participation will be very small… It will be interesting to see the extent to which the People's Liberation Army interacts with military personnel from other countries."

tanhy@sph.com.sg