America Is Slowly Losing Thailand as an Ally
2014 coup has strained military ties
The 2016 edition of the U.S.-Thai Cobra Gold exercise kicked off on Feb. 9. Conducted annually since 1982, the 10-day war game is supposed to underscore — and strengthen — the longstanding alliance between Washington and Bangkok. But that alliance is fraying … and Cobra Gold is withering as a result.
The 2016 exercise is the second since a military junta overthrew Thailand’s elected government in 2014. U.S. participation in the war game peaked at no fewer than 13,000 personnel. That slipped to 4,300 in 2014, 3,600 in 2015 and just 3,288 this year.
Since opening diplomatic relations 183 years ago, the United States and Thailand have usually fought on the same side in major conflicts. In World War I, Siam — as Thailand was then called — declared war on Austria-Hungry and Germany and sent troops to fight alongside the Allied powers in France. Though overwhelmed by the Japanese in 1941 and coerced to declare war on the United States and England early in 1942, Thailand’s population resisted the Axis and even plotted a mass uprising for late 1945 that, fortunately for the would-be rebels, was rendered moot when Japan surrendered in September that year.
Both Thailand and the United States are members of the South East Asian Treaty Organization. During the Vietnam War, Thailand hosted several U.S. military bases and also provided troops to fight alongside the Americans. Thai mercenaries boosted the United States’ clandestine activities in Laos. More recently during the Operation Enduring Freedom, Thailand allowed U.S. aircraft to refuel at Utapao Airport while en route to the Middle East — and also aided America’s War on Terror by helping to apprehend Riduan Isamuddin, the former head of the Indonesian terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah, in 2003.
The Pentagon’s ostensible “pivot” to the Pacific region might have justified an even closer Thai-American alliance, but the military coup d’état in May 2014 — in which Gen. Prayuth Chan Ocha unseated the democratically elected government — compelled Washington to put some distance between it and the new regime in Bangkok.
U.S. ambassador to Thailand Glyn Davies didn’t shy away from mentioning the coup during the opening ceremony for Cobra Gold 2016 on Feb. 9. “As deep and broad as our partnership is today, it will grow stronger still when, as the prime minister has affirmed, Thailand returns to elected governance,” Davies said. “With a strengthened, sustainable democratic system, Thailand’s regional leadership role, and our alliance, can reach its full potential.”
Thai, American, Malaysian and Japanese military take part in a civilian evacuation exercise during Cobra Gold 2016. War Is Boring photos
Utapao Pattaya International Airport is a joint civilian-military facility situated 105 miles southeast of Bangkok. On the morning of Feb. 17, American, Thai, Malaysian and Japanese troops simulated a noncombatant evacuation operation at the airport. Malaysian and Japanese personnel provided security while other troops screened evacuees in a hangar. Royal Malaysian Air Force airmen and U.S. Marines plus Japanese troops from the Central Readiness Force, which specializes in evacuations, escorted the civilian evacuees to a military cargo plane.
Meanwhile the Thai military conducted more elaborate procedures, which included the interrogation of suspected militants and quarantine of individuals by troops in hazmat suits. Among the exercise’s observers were officials from Laos and Brunei. In all, two dozen countries sent observers. “In Asia it is not a question of if, but when, that we have to deploy and conduct operations with our allies,” said U.S. Army major David Eastburn, an exercise spokesman. “This is what makes Cobra Gold so important.”
But for all the polite overtures, Cobra Gold is declining in parallel with the weakening of the U.S.-Thai alliance. The 2016 war game included few high-intensity training events aimed at honing troops’ skills for major warfare. If the trend holds, 2017’s Cobra Gold will be even smaller and less intensive than the 2016 war game was.
And as the United States and Thailand grow apart, Thailand’s junta government has recently strengthened security ties with Russia. Eyeing an opportunity, Moscow has graciously stressed that it isn’t at all worried about Thailand’s 2014 coup — in stark contrast to America’s own very public expressions of concern for its old ally’s increasingly authoritarian ways.