Cobra Gold and Thai strategic interests
When the 32nd Cobra Gold multinational military exercise, which begins today, is over in ten-day time, hundreds of families of Baan Hua Wang Krang School in Muang District, Phitsanulok, would be extreme happy. They will have a new one-story multipurpose building for their children. It would be the outcome of four-week joint effort of Thai, US and Singapore soldiers as part of engineering civic assistance projects under this year's exercise. Other national forces are also involved in humanitarian and health engagement projects in selective provinces with the Joint Command Center in Chiangmai. For the Thais, as in the previous years, these would be the most tangible results of the region's largest military exercise. However, for the Thai armed forces, it is not what it seems.The Cobra Gold 2013 (CG13) will involve 13,000 military personnel from the Asia-Pacific countries. Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia are full participating countries while other dozen countries are parts of the Coalition Observer Liaison Team or Multinational Planning and Augmentation Team. As the co-host with the US, the Thai armed forces should be proud and take advantage of the three-decade long opportunity to improve overall knowledge and defense capacity and maximize Thailand's strategic values liked no other participants. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
During the height of Cold War, the annual Thai-US military exercise was the symbol of unshakable security relations and served as one of the US key pillars for the regional security. Amid the past menace of communist threats, it was normal for the annual exercise to hold repeated simulations of foreign invasions of Thailand through the Eastern flank. As such, the American and Thai troops would virtually fought together to repeal enemies through combined strategic planning and executed along the rugged terrains in Isarn. Those days were gone. Without common threats or real enemies, the Thai-US security relations have stalled and its significance receded dramatically. From the Thai perspective, the exercise was welcome as it boosted local economies and helped erecting a few new buildings and digging water wells here and there. However, what was completely missing all along has been the Thai armed forces' ability to understand and subsequently utilize the strategic elements of this grand exercise each year, especially various senior leader engagements.
Other neighbouring countries, without any long standing treaty's obligation, have taken full advantage of this maneuvering and gained strategic insights which helped them to address and fine-tune their national defense plans to meet both new strategic landscapes and US security needs in this part of the world. For instance, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia would normally dispatch their best military strategists to take part in the multipurpose exercises and to learn as much as possible, especially the new military technologies and communications gears. Sad but true, for the Thai officials, it was another 10-day of extra works and coordination efforts that interrupted with their routines at respective units. Beyond the famous Thai hospitality and smiles, the Thai participants, especially those who lack the English language ability, would suddenly seen enthusiatic to make their presence felt on the last few days before expressing relief. If the past events were any judge, it was clear that the Thai military leaders seldom read the reports or follow-up with the lessons learned.
Despite the Thai benign attitude, the exercise continues uninterrupted even at the worst time - in the post coups of 1991 and 2006 when Thailand came under severe attacks from the US lawmakers and media. Washington has been wise to persist with the exercise and put up with Thai shenanigans. In retrospect, if it were suspended, it would be extremely difficult to reconnect with the Thai security apparatus again. The Thai political situation in the past decade did not help either as it was so volatile and unpredictable. Indeed, it has eaten away the significance of Thai-US treaty alliance. Worse still, Washington has been constantly portrayed locally as an unfriendly country and biased whenever engaging key political players at the elite and grass-root levels. The brief visit by President Barack Obama over here in November - taking advantage of relatively calm political situation from January to October 2012--did a lot of good to instill mutual trust and confidence in Thai-US bilateral ties.
Granted the current geopolitics dominated by the debate of China's rise, the CG13 strategic values have increased many folds. The US rebalancing strategies, announced in November 2011, has opened new windows for old allies and new friends in the region to harness the renewed US engagement. Again, Thailand's response was rather slow. The US pivot would not be able to carry out in full without such a multinational military platform with key Asia-Pacific countries can join, including China as one of the observers. For the first time this year, Myanmar will attend the exercise as an observer - a far cry from the past when the country was treated as a pariah state. Last year, the US extended the invitation as an incentive to Nayphidaw for its wide-ranging political and economic reforms.
Prior to the US rebalanced diplomacy, it was the 2004 tsunami, causing huge damage to human lives and properties in the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia, that helped to move up a notch on the Thai-US military cooperation. The region-wide natural catastrophe also highlights the value of Thailand as a hub of logistic supports for humanitarian relief and disaster management. The US aircrafts carriers and planes can have quick and easy access to Uta-pao airbase and Sattahip port for this new purpose. With the traditional threats receding, the humanitarian relief and maritime-related security cooperation, have gradually moving to the central stage. Otherwise, the Thai military leaders would be voided of new ideas that would augment the Thai-US cooperation.
Quite frankly, it would take an extraordinary change of mindset among the leaders of Thai armed forces to seriously take the full benefits of the unique exercise. This year the two countries will celebrate the 180th anniversary of diplomatic relations. Both sides are consulting on ways to reinvigorate the alliance and overall bilateral relations. This is an uphill task. Thailand is no longer the kind of tamed US ally as in the past due to the change of threat perception. Its closer all-facet relations with China have placed additional constraints on the Thai diplomacy. Thailand and US must identify new common grounds for future cooperation which are mutually beneficial and sustainable. Otherwise, Thailand will remain on the periphery of the emerging security architecture.