- - Monday, February 13, 2017

BANGKOK — The arrival this week of the top U.S. military commander in East Asia is being taken here as just one more sign of how President Trump is upending diplomacy and putting his own stamp on U.S. foreign policy priorities.

Adm. Harry B. Harris, the head of U.S. Pacific Command, will make the trip to Thailand on Tuesday to open the massive 10-day Cobra Gold military exercise, long the bedrock event in the bilateral alliance. Adm. Harris will be the highest-ranking U.S. officer to visit Thailand since the 2014 military coup that vaulted Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to power.

In the busy opening weeks of his administration, Mr. Trump has said nothing publicly about the U.S.-Thai relationship, about the Obama administration’s concerns on human rights and civil liberties or about Bangkok’s moves to boost ties with China. But the admiral’s visit, announced just before Mr. Trump took office, is being watched with extra care for signs of a shifting approach by the U.S. to one of its oldest allies in Southeast Asia.

The Cobra Gold exercises, first staged in Thailand in 1982 and now one of the largest military gatherings in the Asia-Pacific region, will be held from Tuesday to Feb. 24 and will involve 13,000 troops, with 29 countries either participating or formally observing the games. The U.S. Embassy said some 3,600 U.S. personnel will take part — down from about 7,000 in 2014 before Mr. Prayuth seized power and declared martial law.

The Obama administration held up some $4.7 million in security assistance and military aid to signal its displeasure with the state of Thai democracy, and a high-level U.S. diplomat has not visited in nearly two years.

But the admiral’s presence this week “would send a strong signal to the international community that the U.S. remains engaged strategically in the region as before,” wrote Kavi Chongkittavorn, a columnist at The Nation, a Thai English-language newspaper. “Trump and his foreign policy team have made contradictory remarks on the future of U.S. foreign agenda in Asia, generating lots of anxieties among regional leaders.”

Thai defense officials are talking up the significance of the visit. “It is not common for an officer of Adm. Harris’ rank to attend these sorts of events,” Gen. Chalermchai Sittisart, the recently named army commander in chief, told the Reuters news agency.

The focus of the military exercises may be, according to planners, “humanitarian operations and disaster management,” but the “real message will be re-engagement by the U.S. with Southeast Asia under the Trump administration,” Pavin Chachavalpongpun of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University wrote in The Japan Times late last week.

Like some other authoritarian leaders around the world, Mr. Prayuth has reached out to the new American president after a period of frosty ties under Mr. Obama.

“Your victory is remarkable and clear evidence that the American people have placed their trust and confidence in you to lead the country forward,” Mr. Prayuth told Mr. Trump in a congratulatory letter on Jan. 20, emphasizing more than 180 years of relations between the countries.

Compatible leaders

The combative and plain-spoken Mr. Prayuth, who has a testy relationship with the local press, was asked if he saw a similar personality in the new U.S. president.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “Is that good or not? I’m not a politician. Sometimes I speak too sincerely and might not be polite, but I actually never hold grudges against anyone. I could be angry again, but it’s my own personality.”

Mr. Trump and Mr. Prayuth apparently have not talked by telephone, a senior Thai official said.

“I asked my colleagues and they said, ‘Not yet. They haven’t talked yet.’ I have no idea why not.”

“We might not be on the top of their priority,” he said, asking not to be identified because he was not authorized to discuss the issue.

Thai government officials heard that Rex Tillerman, the former Exxon Mobil Corp. chairman who is now Mr. Trump’s secretary of state, was a businessman who has had dealings with Bangkok, with several trips to view the company’s energy operations here. “Exxon Mobil has had a business presence in Thailand for more than 120 years,” the company says on its website.

“We have a full range of downstream operations, including a refinery and chemical manufacturing at Sriracha, a network of distribution terminals and service stations along with a strong lubricants presence. We also operate an onshore natural gas production site in the Nam Phong district, Khon Kaen province.

The Cobra Gold participants will stage an amphibious assault along the gulf near Bangkok, practice evacuations of noncombatants from multiple locations and stage live firing of combined weaponry.

Adm. Harris’ attendance at the opening of Cobra Gold “is clearly a further step toward a renormalization of the security relationship,” Gregory Poling, an Asia analyst with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the military Stars and Stripes newspaper. “I think what PACOM is trying to do is send a message that we want to get over this hump.”

Thai-U.S. relations appeared to improve slightly in the final years of Mr. Obama’s administration. Denunciations of the Thai government were less frequent, and U.S. Ambassador Glyn Davies, a career diplomat expected to remain in his post under Mr. Trump, tweeted out enthusiastic updates about meeting with Thai officials.

Thai Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam announced last week that a general election for a new government will be held in February 2018. The government originally promised a vote this year, but the timetable might have been affected by the death in October of long-reigning King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

The Prayuth’s government’s overtures to Russia, and especially China, may also have forced the U.S. government to recalibrate its stand. The junta recently backed away from buying more U.S.-made Black Hawk helicopters and now prefers Russian MI-17 helicopters, the Bangkok Post reported.

Purchases of Chinese tanks and submarines are also planned.

In 2015, the first joint air exercise by China and Thailand included 180 Chinese officers and top pilots at a Thai base in Korat, used by the U.S. Air Force to bomb Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam War.

“The Thai junta has been successful in implementing a policy of playing the U.S. and China off against each other,” wrote Mr. Chachavalpongpun, the University of Kyoto analyst.

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