From a humble beginning as a joint military exercise between Thailand and the U.S. involving selective personnel of the Marine Corps in 1982, the Cobra Gold has become the world’s largest operation of its kind.
Nearly two dozen countries are taking part as well as observing the annual war games. Malaysia is the latest to join, sending 13 troops for training this year ― beginning this week at the headquarters in Chiangmai.
It is quite amazing that Cobra Gold has survived against all political odds plaguing Thailand’s domestic conditions and subsequently ties with the U.S. relations. Both sides have learned from their diplomatic history that actions speak louder than words.
The Manila Pact (1954) and the Thanat-Rush communiqu (1962), which is the pillar of their security cooperation, have not guaranteed results. Truth be told, both sides disappointed each other as a dependable ally. They have fallen short of expectations. Washington had its own global strategic needs, which Bangkok failed to fulfill. In a similar vein, Bangkok also desired more visible moral support from the U.S. especially during times of political turmoil, which normally was slow in coming as it did not augur well with the U.S. pronouncement of democratic values. Of late, details of the U.S. Embassy’s cable dated Jan. 25, 2010, through the WikiLeaks, further rubbed salt into the wounds of increasing delicate Thai-U.S. relations.
That helps to explain why for the past three decades, Cobra Gold has essentially come to symbolize the most tangible outcome of Thai-U.S. military cooperation. Washington suspended the annual exercise only once in 1992 following the coup two months earlier and quickly resumed with a full-scale operation the following year. Although possibilities of suspension were brought up in Washington after the coup in September 2006, the exercise nonetheless was held the following year without a hitch.
Gone were the days when Thai-U.S. military leaders had to figure out together who were their common enemies. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, annual war games, especially along the porous borders with neighboring countries, were indicative of potential security threats perceived by their commanders. These days, they have come to terms with the situation of enemy deprivation and are quite satisfied to tackle common peace-related issues and transnational problems including anti-piracy, narcotics and human trafficking, humanitarian and disastrous relief operations. A lot of energy is also placed on community building and reconstruction work.
For the past decade, the Thai political crisis and on-and-off military interventions have somehow prevented the Thai army from adopting long-term strategic plans with the U.S. Among the five Asia Pacific allies of the U.S. including Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines, Thailand comes last in its importance ― unlike during the Indochina War. Former Philippine President Gloria Arroyo succeeded in rejuvenating the U.S.-Philippine engagement and attracted huge foreign aid for anti-terrorism campaigns inside her country. Fresh from the shock of Sept. 11, 2001, Washington responded enthusiastically to her suggestions.
Japan, South Korea and Australia are considered as premier security allies of the U.S. in this part of the world. They all played active roles in supporting Washington’s global strategies especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thailand’s half-hearted cooperation has often undermined its own ally’s credibility. From 2003 to 2006, Thailand was in turbo mode, eager to demonstrate its value as a partner of the U.S. to fight terrorism in exchange of fast-track free trade negotiations, which eventually collapsed, and non-NATO ally status. Interestingly, the Thai army scores higher marks when it comes to fulfill international roles and commitments under the U.N. Charters, especially those related to peacekeeping and humanitarian operations.
The annual exercise shows the U.S. interest and commitment to the region’s peace and security. With the U.S. participation, along with Russia, later this year at the East Asia Summit, a new regional security architecture is in the making. As such, Washington needs to rethink how it can further increase strategic values to the burgeoning multilateral military exercise. Most of the countries participate in this year’s exercise are members of the ASEAN Regional Forum and have signed the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. Obviously, Thailand, as a co-host, must see eye to eye to Cobra Gold’s new outlook.
U.S. State Secretary Hilary Clinton reiterated recently that the U.S. places great importance to its treaty alliance. In a similar vein, Thailand must take this opportunity to review comprehensively existing Thai-U.S. security agreements including the 1962 treaty to reflect the present geopolitical environment. With the exception of Thailand, all other allies in the region have already worked out their future blueprints.
Indeed, the two countries need to do a lot more to deepen their security cooperation bilaterally and regionally. For instance, existing military facilities both air and sea inside Thailand could be further developed and expanded as a logistic center to cope with new non-traditional threats or potential conflicts. Increased exchange of intelligence can help Thailand counter any terrorist move in the future. Finally, Thailand needs to turn around and begin to realignment itself with the new geopolitics.
Eventually, a weak ally with the U.S. will negatively impact on the stronger partner’s ability to project power and implement overall strategic objectives.
By Kavi Chongkittavorn
Kavi Chongkittavorn is an assistant group editor of Nation Multimedia Group in Bangkok. ― Ed.
(Asia News Network)