BANGKOK — More than 3,800 U.S. troops are leading 30 countries’ forces and observers through Cobra Gold, the Pentagon’s biggest annual Asian military exercise and a return to normalcy after COVID-19 sharply curbed operations in recent years.
This year’s military and humanitarian training exercises come with a sharper political edge as well. The Biden administration and the Pentagon are trying to keep Thailand’s coup-empowered army allied with Washington while China — a participant in this year’s games — increases its political, economic and cultural influence over a longtime U.S. ally.
Some Thais say the Biden administration has fences to mend with the government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former army chief who came to power in 2014 after the military ousted the elected civilian government. The atmosphere is further charged by Thai preparations for general elections in May that could determine whether Mr. Prayuth hangs on to power in Bangkok.
“There has been resentment among Thai military officers and conservative politicians because of what is perceived as [Washington’s] high-handed, tutelary policy about what Thailand should and should not do with regard to coups,” said Paul Chambers, a Southeast Asian studies lecturer at Naresuan University in Thailand.
“The negative policy in Washington toward coups [in 2006 and 2014] … contributed to some extent in Bangkok moving toward a realist policy of ‘hedging,’ whereby a state creates balance between two great powers — in this case, China versus the U.S.,” Mr. Chambers said in an interview.
In another interview, former Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said that “the Thai military establishment does not like the United States for talking and pressing about military nonintervention in politics, and for the need to return democracy to the Thai people.”
“Chinese, on the other hand, love to deal with authoritarian regimes,” said Mr. Kasit, who is on the board of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations parliamentary group focused on human rights. Beijing’s “noninterference posture makes the Thai military establishment feel at ease and comfortable. Once the Chinese side got hold of the Thai military establishment, things got easier for them to influence.”
Another former foreign minister, Kantathi Suphamongkhon, said, “The U.S. should increase its engagement with Thailand and the Thai people in multidimensional ways: easier access for Thai diplomats in Washington to high-level U.S. administration officials, as well as members of Congress and Senate.”
China has surpassed the U.S. as Thailand’s largest bilateral trading partner, but U.S.-Thai trading links remain strong and Washington has other levers to pull.
Ten U.S.-made Stryker armored personnel carriers purchased by the Royal Thai Army arrived in August, bringing the military’s total to 130 Strykers since 2019. The Thai air force is trying to purchase two U.S.-built F-35 fighter jets. The purchase is awaiting Washington’s approval.
U.S.-based Chevron Offshore Thailand, along with Thai and Japanese petroleum corporations, is studying how to exploit possible oil and natural gas deposits off the southeastern coast, under the shallow Gulf of Thailand.
Off Thailand’s southwestern shores, “the U.S. eyes the areas around the Bay of Bengal, particularly Myanmar (Burma), which is strategically located and endowed with natural resources,” said Piti Srisangnam, director of Chulalongkorn University’s ASEAN center in Bangkok.
Previous Cobra Gold exercises included assaults against mock terrorists occupying offshore oil and gas platforms.
Competing for influence
The Commerce Department will bring representatives from more than 100 U.S. businesses to a Trade Winds ASEAN forum Monday through Wednesday in Bangkok to schmooze counterparts and others from more than 20 Asian countries. Beijing also has been actively cultivating local investment opportunities.
More than 4,000 business leaders from China and the Chinese diaspora in other countries are expected to flock to the 16th World Chinese Entrepreneurs Convention (WCEC) in Bangkok from June 24-26, according to the Thai-Chinese Chamber of Commerce.
China’s great leap into Thailand’s telecommunications includes the installation of high-tech Huawei systems, Beijing-inspired firewalls and other cyberspace abilities. Huawei Chairman Ken Hu led an October forum in Bangkok that trumpeted the ability of the company’s ultra-fast 5G networks to optimize TikTok and other video streams. Huawei is a global leader in smartphone production, but the U.S. and many of its allies largely ban it because of suspected ties to the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
“We need to work together to fully unleash the power of 5G networks and expand into services like cloud and system integration,” Mr. Hu said.
In August, the increasingly media-savvy Tourism Authority of Thailand signed a “Digital Transformation and Innovation Development for Smart Tourism” memorandum of understanding to partner with Huawei’s Thailand unit.
During a visit to Bangkok last year, then-Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that “China and Thailand are not strangers, but siblings.”
That traditional slogan is based on Chinese immigrants, intermarriages, their shared ancestors, plus geographic proximity and economic and cultural links.
“I think the people of the two countries will believe in our attempt to develop closer ties,” Mr. Wang said after meeting with Mr. Prayuth.
In August, Chinese and Thai forces conducted the 10-day Falcon Strike, their fourth joint air warfare exercise since 2015. The operation was tiny compared with Cobra Gold, the most visible symbol of U.S. determination to preserve the broader alliance.
Since 1982, Cobra Gold has swollen from a bilateral U.S. and Thai maritime drill to its current incarnation, which includes land, amphibious and airborne mock warfare using combined arms live fire, command staff instruction, public relief work and other activities. A Combined Space Forces Coordination Center is making its debut this year, underscoring the rising importance of outer space in Pentagon planning.
Military from Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia have joined the co-hosts as full participants during the two weeks of planning and field exercises. Drill partners and observers from 23 other countries bring the total to more than 7,000 personnel on the land and sea and in the air for warfare and other scenarios. Brazil, Cambodia, Germany, Greece, Kuwait, Laos, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Vietnam are present as observers.
Despite escalating tensions between Washington and Beijing, Chinese personnel will participate in disaster and other humanitarian exercises, along with regional rivals India and Australia.
“It brings together 30 countries from around the world to solve complex challenges that no single country can solve alone,” U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Robert F. Godec said at Cobra Gold’s opening in eastern Rayong province on Feb. 28. The drills end Friday.
Mr. Kasit noted that President George W. Bush designated Thailand as a “major non-NATO ally” in 2003. That designation has held despite immense political shifts in both countries over the past two decades. Cobra Gold, Mr. Kasit added, “is still a major event in the U.S.-Thai relationships.”
Cobra Gold’s official 2023 uniform patch displays a drawing of a white American eagle, with a stars-and-stripes breast shield, standing on a North Pole.
A hooded and coiled golden cobra rises from the South Pole with the head touching southeast Australia.