Multilateral war games seen as test of US-Thailand ties

Soldiers from different Asia-Pacific countries at the opening of the Cobra Gold war games at Sattahip Royal Thai Marine Corps Base in Chonburi, Thailand, yesterday.
Soldiers from different Asia-Pacific countries at the opening of the Cobra Gold war games at Sattahip Royal Thai Marine Corps Base in Chonburi, Thailand, yesterday.PHOTO: REUTERS

Region's leaders seeking clues on US military commitment to Asia under Trump administration

The chief of the United States Pacific Command opened the region's biggest annual multilateral war games yesterday, as leaders look for clues on American military commitment to Asia under the new administration of President Donald Trump.

Admiral Harry Harris, the most senior American military officer to set foot on Thailand since a 2014 coup ushered in junta rule in the kingdom, launched with his regional counterparts the 10-day exercise involving over 8,000 troops from 29 countries, including Singapore.

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

The visit of Adm Harris had 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 its treaty ally 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 on each count of royal insult.

DEEP AND ENDURING COMMITMENT

The US alliance with Thailand is a deep and enduring commitment. We look forward to Thailand's re-emergence as a flourishing democracy because we need Thailand as a strong and stable ally.

US ADMIRAL HARRY HARRIS, on the US administration's policy towards Bangkok after the 2014 military coup.

Meanwhile, there has been no clear indication about the future of the US military presence in the region, even as Mr Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last week issued a joint statement pledging "unwavering" US commitment to defend Japan "through the full range of US military capabilities".

A key question that remains is how the Trump administration will handle the increasingly assertive actions of China in the South and East China seas, where it is embroiled in territorial disputes with several of its smaller neighbours.

At Thailand's marine corps base in Chonburi province yesterday, Adm Harris told the assembled troops and guests: "The US alliance with Thailand is a deep and enduring commitment. We look forward to Thailand's re-emergence as a flourishing democracy because we need Thailand as a strong and stable ally."

Later in the afternoon, he met Thai Premier Prayut Chan-o-cha in Bangkok.

Ambassador Davies, meanwhile, 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".

Asked by reporters about US policy in the region, he requested "everybody to be a little bit patient" as Mr Trump fills the ranks of his administration.

Dr Ian Storey, an analyst from Singapore's ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, told The Straits Times that while the visit of Adm 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.

Similarly, Thammasat University international relations lecturer Pongkwan Sawasdipakdi called the exercise more "a message to China that the US is not leaving the region yet".

For the region, the annual exercise represents "continuity rather than change", said Dr Storey. "The US military presence in Asia is quite huge. It hasn't changed since Jan 21 (after Mr Trump was inaugurated) and is unlikely to change."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2017, with the headline 'Multilateral war games seen as test of US-Thailand ties'. Print Edition | Subscribe