Giant Cobra Gold exercise offers a case study in U.S.-China rivalry

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BANGKOK, Thailand — 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 sharply curbed operations in recent years.

But this year’s military and humanitarian training exercises come with a sharper political edge as well, as the Biden administration and the Pentagon try to keep Thailand’s coup-empowered army allied with Washington at a time when China — a participant in this year’s games — increases its political, economic, and cultural influence over a longtime U.S. ally.

Some here say the Biden administration has some fences to mend after a cooling of relations with the government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chn-ocha, the former army chief who originally came to power in 2014 after the military ousted the elected civilian government. The atmosphere is further charged as Thais prepare for general elections in May that could determine where 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 non-intervention 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 also on the board of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations parliamentary group focused on human rights. Biejing’s “non-interference 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, added, “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 Thai Royal Army arrived in August 2022, 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, a purchase still 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.

Similarly, 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 Srisangham, 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 U.S. Commerce Department is bringing representatives from more than 100 U.S. businesses to a Trade Winds ASEAN forum March 13-15 in Bangkok to schmooze counterparts and others from more than 20 Asian countries, although Beijing has also been actively cultivating local investment opportunities.

More than 4,000 Chinese business leaders from China, plus the Chinese diaspora in other countries, are expected to flock to the 16th World Chinese Entrepreneurs Convention (WCEC) in Bangkok June 24-26, according to the Thai-Chinese Chamber of Commerce.

China’s great leap forward into Thailand’s telecommunications includes installing high-tech Huawei systems, Beijing-inspired firewalls, and other cyber abilities. An October forum in Bangkok by Huawei — a global leader in smartphone production that is largely banned from the U.S. and many of its allies over suspected ties to the ruling Chinese Communist Party — was led by Huawei Chairman Ken Hu and trumpeted the ability of the company’s ultra-fast 5G networks to optimize TikTok and other video streams.

“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 2022, the Thai government’s increasingly media-savvy Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) inked a “Digital Transformation and Innovation Development for Smart Tourism” memorandum of understanding to partner with the Huawei’s Thailand unit.

During a Bangkok visit 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, 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 Prime Minister Prayuth.

In August 2022, Chinese and Thai forces conducted the 10-day Falcon Strike exercise, their fourth joint air warfare exercise since 2015. But the operation was tiny compared to Cobra Gold, which has become 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 that includes land, amphibious and airborne mock warfare including combined arms live-fire, command staff instruction, public relief work and other activities. A new Combined Space Forces Coordination Center is making its debut this year, underscoring the rising military importance of outer space in Pentagon planning.

Military from Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia 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, sea, and in the air for warfare and other scenarios, while Brazil, Cambodia, Germany Greece, Kuwait, Laos, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam are present as observers.

And 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 March 10.

Mr. Kasit noted that President George W. Bush designated Thailand as a “major non-NATO ally” in 2003, a designation that has held despite immense political shifts in both countries in the two decades since. Cobra Gold, he added, “is still a major event in the U.S.-Thai relationships.”

Exercise 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 tiny Earth’s North Pole.

A hooded and coiled golden cobra rises from under the South Pole — the head touching southeast Australia.

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