- - Wednesday, February 7, 2018

BANGKOK | In a clear sign the Obama-era chill in relations is over, Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph F. Dunford arrived in Bangkok on Wednesday vowing to improve military ties with Thailand’s armed forces which seized control in a 2014 coup. The U.S. general praised plans for national elections later this year — which the junta has not confirmed — and met with the embattled defense minister at the center of a corruption scandal that has rocked the government.

Once one of Washington’s most reliable military allies in Southeast Asia, Thailand’s ties to the U.S. plummeted in the wake of the 2014 coup, in which then-army chief and now Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha ousted a civilian government and clamped down on dissent. In the wake of the coup, the Defense Department also curtailed its participation in the massive “Cobra Gold” exercises held annually with Thailand for more than three decades.

But Gen. Dunford’s visit, the first by a head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in six years, fits with a pattern of renewed willingness by the Trump administration to work on security issues with authoritarian leaders from Egypt to the Philippines. Gen. Dunford also met privately with Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, the “Rolex general” who has faced calls by the press and opposition groups to resign over a recent scandal involving his collection of premium wristwatches, some worth $100,000 or more.

“We’ve had good discussions about how we will move the relationship forward and what opportunities exist for us to deepen our military-to-military relationship,” the U.S. general told reporters in Bangkok after their meeting.

The Pentagon said U.S.-Thai military relations are being “re-energized” in the wake of the pledge by the military-dominated junta to hold national elections later this year — although Mr. Prayuth has yet to set a date for the vote and has hinted they may be pushed off until at least 2019. A day before the U.S. general arrived, a Thai rights group called off a news conference demanding a vote this year following a police warning that the event might violate a junta ban on public gatherings, the Reuters news agency reported.

Gen. Dunford defended the renewed ties, noting that U.S.-Thai relations date back to the early 1800s and that Bangkok is a major player in one of the world’s most dynamic regions. As a young Marine officer, Gen. Dunford himself participated in the first Cobra Gold exercise in 1981, the Pentagon said.

“It is important to maintain relations with Thailand, because they have outstanding visibility in the maritime domain in a critical part of the world,” Gen. Dunford said. “They have been a good partner overall, and our strength globally and particularly in the Pacific is our network of allies and partners.”

Cobra Gold

Gen. Dunford’s visit comes just before the February 13 kickoff of Exercise Cobra Gold 2018. The U.S. Embassy said 6,800 U.S. personnel will join 4,000 Thai troops and forces and observers from some 30 nations for this year’s exercises.

Forces from Singapore, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and Malaysia are arriving, along with a small number of soldiers from China and India.

Australia, Canada, Bangladesh and Nepal are among those participating.

With China following an increasingly assertive policy in the South China Sea and with its neighbors, Gen. Dunford said his Bangkok visit and this year’s Cobra Gold exercise were designed in part to send a message to the region and beyond.

“You cannot dispute the facts from a security perspective about U.S. presence in the Pacific, U.S. commitment in the Pacific and U.S. capability in the Pacific,” Gen. Dunford said. “Certainly the physical evidence from a military dimension reflects that we are not a declining power.”

He added, “When you see the message that the United States is a declining power, it’s a deliberate effort to undermine the credibility of our alliances and relationships in the region.”

Thailand has no territorial claims in the hotly disputed South China Sea, but Bangkok could play a neutral diplomatic role between the U.S. and its Southeast Asian partners who are confronting China’s increasing domination of those strategic waters. Beijing has launched its own charm offensive targeting Prime Minister Prayuth, and China and the U.S. are widely perceived as competing for Bangkok’s loyalty.

Gen. Dunford’s Asia trip has already included stops at the U.S. Pacific Command and Australia. He is expected to visit U.S. troops stationed in Guam before returning home.

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