On February 14 when Admiral Harry B. Harris of US Pacific Command launches the 36th Cobra Gold joint exercise at Uta-pao airbase, it would send a strong signal to the international community that the US remains engaged strategically in the region as before, especially with its long standing friend and ally of nearly 200 years.
Over the past two months, President elect Donald Trump and his foreign policy team have made contradictory remarks on future of US foreign agenda in Asia—generating lots of anxieties among the regional leaders. Although it is still unclear which approach Trump would choose—retaining his predecessor’s framework or replace it with a new one. However, the Thai defense officials believed that the incoming administration would do the so-called cherry-picking over the security policy in Southeast Asia.
In more ways than one, Harris’ scheduled trip to Thailand will be closely watched as it is significant not only to the strengthening of Thai-US defense cooperation but also to demonstrate the ongoing US firm strategic commitment to the region. Over the past decades, previous US administrations have effectively maintained strong security presence in Asia. However, today’s strategic environment is quite different with growing challenges posed by other major powers including China and Russia.
Truth be told, it took the US navy boss over two years before he could make this trip to open the region’s biggest annual multilateral military exercise in the Asia-Pacific. He will be the first highest US officials to visit Thailand after the coup. This year exercise will last for 10 days from 14-24 February. It is an open secret that the US State Department has been reluctant to dispatch top-level officials to Thailand until it has an elected government—still a bone of contention as the Thai military continues with its roadmap and reforms. So far, only Assistant US State Secretary for East Asia and Pacific Affair, Daniel Russel, visited Thailand twice without making any substantive progress in their bilateral ties.
After the power seizure in May 2014, Thai-US relations have fallen like the autumn leaves. Now, there is a small window during the transitional period that the US Defense Department decided to go ahead with Harris’ trip over here. Therefore, the 2017 Cobra Gold marks the first major military exercise under the new US administration, which will be sworn on 20 January. Gone were the debates over the size and scope of previous joint exercises, which used to be the media focus.
This year exercise is clear to all—the numbers of military officials from the US and Thailand will be more than previous two exercises in 2015 and 2016, which is expected to exceed 10,000 persons. Overt two dozen nations would also take parts in various joint exercises and training programs. The theme will be zeroed in on the humanitarian operation and disastrous management. Most importantly, the longstanding benefit of such large multilateral exercises would still be the interoperability among allies and friends.
At this juncture, it is extremely pivotal for the US to pay more attention to its allies in Southeast Asia, especially Thailand. In the past six years, Washington was concentrated on the Philippine security and the South China Sea disputes. The overall Philippine-US defense cooperation has been greatly enhanced. However, President Rodrigo Duterte is intended to change his predecessor’s policy toward the US although it is not clear what he has in mind. But during the last week’s visit of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Manila, Duterte pledged to continue his country’s cooperation with the US as an military ally.
In the mainland Southeast Asia, since November, Washington’s hardline stand toward Thailand has gradually softened. The US State Department has been pushing hard to hold bilateral strategic dialogues with the Thai side, after long delay, before the new US administration moves in. But the Thai government is reluctant to do so due to the future uncertainty as well as the uneasiness with the US diplomats in Bangkok and policy makers in Washington.
From the Thai perspective, if there is a dramatic shift, especially in the weakening of US presence and alliance system in Southeast Asia, other powers will have rare opportunities to contest and increase their profiles in constructing the new regional architecture. In the US absence after the coup, Thailand has quickly expanded defense ties with other countries including China, Russia, India and Japan.
Over the years, Russia, China, India and Indonesia have all submitted their comprehensive security frameworks to Asean for consideration. For the time being, Asean has not yet taken up any proposal in a serious way. It is still too early to tell whether these security proposals would meet the same fate as the Asian wide security idea put forward by Australia, which was immediately turned down by Asean. As the Philippines is the current Asean chair, there could be more discussion on these frameworks, which Indonesia has pledged to prepare a report in 2015.
So far, only Cambodia has announced publicly at the end of last year its unwavering support of China’s Treaty of Good Neighborliness and Cooperation. Other Asean members have adopted wait and see attitude toward the Chinese proposal that focuses on importance of strategic partnership and cooperation without any military alliance. Future support of China’s framework within Asean would very much depend on the current negotiation on the framework of code of conduct in South China Sea whether it is completed as planned in the middle of this year and Beijing’s general attitude towards the situation in Asean.
At the moment, various Asean-led security platforms such as Asean Regional Forum, Asean Defense Ministerial Meeting Plus and East Asia Summit have becoming more engaging and dynamic prompting the Asean members to work closely together to form common positions on transnational issues. In October, they all voted in support of a UN General Assembly’s resolution to negotiate a new treaty to ban nuclear arms.