- - Wednesday, February 12, 2014

BANGKOK — The U.S. is leading the largest multinational military exercise in the Asia-Pacific region, and Chinese media are hailing Beijing’s first-time participation in the annual drill as proof that the communist nation’s “regional military impact” cannot be ignored.

Nearly 14,000 troops from the U.S. and Asia-Pacific countries are participating in Cobra Gold 2014, which opened Tuesday at Camp Akatosarot, about 230 miles north of Bangkok.

“Cobra Gold truly replicates the dynamic security environment we find ourselves in today, and what we will face in the future,” Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, said at the opening ceremony for the military exercise.

About 9,000 U.S. troops are training alongside 4,000 from Thailand, 80 from Singapore, 120 from Japan, 300 from South Korea, 160 from Indonesia and 120 from Malaysia.

Several other nations such as Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar are participating as observers in the 33rd annual drills.

China has “observer-plus” status, as it is offering a “humanitarian civic assistance team” of 17 troops, the Army said. Chinese troops will not be included in Cobra Gold’s top-level maneuvers, which include live-fire drills, jungle survival training, amphibious landings and warplane flights.

Still, Chinese media hailed and highlighted Beijing’s limited role in the military drills.

China’s Xinhua News Agency noted that Cobra’s 17 Chinese troops, “mainly from the Guangzhou Military Area Command, will participate in humanitarian relief drills … [and] in operations at the command and coordination center, engineering assistance, medical aid as well as discussions and exchanges of military medical sciences.”

The newspaper China Daily reported that China’s inclusion “reflects Beijing’s growing military capability and impact on the region … [and] demonstrates Beijing’s warming military ties with Washington.”

China is making its first entrance into the U.S.-led exercises amid a yearslong military buildup, which is aimed in part to deter Pentagon action in the region, and territorial disputes with several of its neighbors, some of whom also are participating in Cobra maneuvers.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is directing military, diplomatic and economic attention to the area in its “pivot” to Asia, as some of its regional allies seek closer U.S. ties to counterbalance China’s assertiveness.

China’s attendance is a ground-breaking move,” said Du Wenlong, a senior researcher at the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Military Science, according to China Daily. “That means the growth of its military capability, and its regional military impact especially, cannot be ignored.”

Li Haidong, a researcher in U.S. studies at China Foreign Affairs University, said: “As the exercise is led by the U.S. and its ally Thailand, Beijing’s participation quenches the suspicion that the drill is targeted at China.”

“Beijing has sent the message through this move that it is willing to further communicate in military affairs with the U.S. and its allies,” Mr. Li said, according to China Daily.

Thai officials said their country enjoys good diplomatic, business, cultural and military relations with China, and is pleased that Beijing is included in the Cobra exercises.

China’s participation in the drill is a positive sign, as it could reduce mistrust,” said Lt. Gen. Tharnchaiyant Srisuwan, director of joint operations at Royal Thai Armed Forces Headquarters.

“All countries are relieved. The move will also boost military relations between China and ASEAN,” he told the Bangkok Post, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

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