BANGKOK, Thailand — President Donald Trump may strengthen Washington’s support for Bangkok’s military government after sending the head of the U.S. Pacific Command to open a 10-day Cobra Gold military exercise on Valentine’s Day, the highest-level officer to arrive since Thailand’s 2014 coup.
But Mr. Trump’s silence on U.S.-Thailand relations has analysts wondering if he will follow through, or risk allowing Bangkok to drift closer to Beijing.
The Trump administration’s focus in the Asia-Pacific region includes Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, Taiwan’s separate status from China, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, and the spread of Islamic terrorism.
“A Trump administration, less concerned with issues of human rights, could see a return to full American engagement, but at this point, Trump’s approach to Asia is unclear and contradictory at best,” former Canadian ambassador to Thailand Phil Calvert said on February 7 in “A Diplomat’s Assessment” published by the Canadian International Council.
“Given the long history of cooperation and the key strategic role of Thailand in the Pacific, it is unlikely that Thailand would have a major break with the U.S.,” Mr. Calvert said.
“Foreign policy was limited and largely incoherent in Trump’s election campaign, characterized by an isolationism both anachronistic and ill-advised,” said Benjamin Zawacki in a recent opinion piece.
“Thailand [was] not even mentioned,” said Mr. Zawacki, author of a forthcoming book titled, “Thailand: Shifting Ground Between the U.S. and a Rising China.”
The February 14-24 Cobra Gold staged an amphibious assault along the gulf near Bangkok, evacuation of non-combatants from multiple locations, and live firing of combined weaponry.
Cobra Gold drills began on Thai soil in 1982. It is the largest multilateral military exercise in Asia.
“There will be up to 29 nations either directly participating in, or observing, Cobra Gold 2017 with approximately 3,600 U.S. personnel directly participating in the various events both ashore and afloat,” the U.S. Embassy in Thailand announced.
Washington shrank Cobra Gold from 7,000 U.S. personnel to 3,600 in 2015 after the Thai military seized power in a bloodless 2014 coup by toppling an elected government.
Washington also stopped $4.7 million in security assistance, training and other military aid.
Pacific Command’s [PACOM’s] Adm. Harry Harris’s arrival “would send a strong signal to the international community that the U.S. remains engaged strategically in the region as before,” wrote Kavi Chongkittavorn, a columnist at Thailand’s Nation news.
“Trump and his foreign policy team have made contradictory remarks on the future of U.S. foreign agenda in Asia, generating lots of anxieties among regional leaders,” Mr. Kavi said.
Adm. Harris’s opening of Cobra Gold “is clearly a further step toward a renormalization of the security relationship,” said Gregory Poling, an Asia expert with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“I think what PACOM is trying to do is send a message that we want to get over this hump,” Mr. Poling said according to Stars and Stripes, a news outlet authorized by the U.S. Department of Defence.
“It is not common for an officer of Adm. Harris’s rank to attend these sorts of events,” Gen. Thanchaiyan Srisuwan, head of Thailand’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Reuters.
“It is a good signal for Thai-American relations, and shows that the U.S. has given importance to this region and this exercise,” Gen. Thanchaiyan said.
Adm. Harris’s visit comes after Gen. Chalermchai Sittisart’s promotion in September to be the new army commander-in-chief, a powerful position which sometimes leads to becoming prime minister.
Gen. Chalermchai received military training in America.
“If we exercise our authority justly, the people will eventually accept us,” Gen. Chalermchai said in a speech to Thai troops on February 7.
The army “will become a main pillar supporting government efforts to run the country,” he told the 1st Army which participated in past and recent coups.
Thailand is a U.S. treaty ally. But after the 2014 putsch, the junta dramatically improved relations with China and Russia.
Meanwhile, relations with the U.S. zigzagged whenever the Washington criticized the regime’s lack of human rights and political freedom or called for fresh elections.
During the past year however Washington’s public statements appeared less frequently, with U.S. Ambassador Glyn Davies tweeting enthusiastic updates about meeting Thai officials.
The envoy is a foreign service career diplomat and is expected to remain in place under President Trump.
Competitive weapons sales to Thailand are also a U.S. concern.
The junta recently backed away from buying more U.S.-made Black Hawk helicopters and now prefers Russian MI-17 helicopters, the Bangkok Post reported.
Purchases of Chinese tanks and submarines are also planned.
In 2015, the first-ever joint air exercise by China and Thailand included 180 Chinese officers and top pilots at a Thai base in Korat, used by the U.S. Air Force to bomb Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam War.
Minority ethnic Malay-Thai Muslim separatists in three southern provinces continue to pose a danger to this Buddhist-majority country’s armed forces.
More than 6,000 people on all sides have died in the conflict since 2004, which the army struggles to contain.
“The conflict in Thailand’s south does not have a military solution, but governments are slow or reluctant to realize this,” Mr. Calvert said.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the 2014 when he was army chief, sent a congratulatory message to President Trump on January 20.
“Your victory is remarkable and clear evidence that the American people have placed their trust and confidence in you to lead the country forward,” Mr. Prayuth said in his message, emphasizing more than 180 years of relations shared by the two countries.
Mr. Prayuth often expresses anger during news conferences and castigates reporters, so when asked if he and Mr. Trump had similarly blunt personalities, Mr. Prayuth replied: “I don’t know. Is that good or not? I’m not a politician.
“Sometimes I speak too sincerely and might not be polite, but I actually never hold grudges against anyone,” Mr. Prayuth told journalists.
“I could be angry again, but it’s my own personality.”
President Trump and Mr. Prayuth apparently have not talked by telephone, one senior Thai official said.
“I asked my colleagues and they said, ‘Not yet. They haven’t talked yet.’ I have no idea why not.
“We might not be on the top of their priority,” he said, asking not to be identified because he was not authorized to discuss the issue.
Thai government officials heard that Rex Tillerson was “a businessman” and are interested in how he will direct the State Department, he said.
“I do not have any information to share on the issues,” about a Trump-Prayuth phone call or Mr. Tillerson’s previous work in Thailand, a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman said.
Thai media reported Mr. Tillerson was president of Esso Exploration and Production Korat in northeast Thailand from 1995-98.
Exxon Mobil Corp. is the parent of Esso, Mobil and ExxonMobil companies.
He “oversaw the Thai exploration and production unit of Esso in Khon Kaen province. The unit operated a small natural gas field,” The Nation news reported.
“He was not permanently posted in Thailand. Instead, he made trips from the United States.”
When Mr. Tillerson later became ExxonMobil Corp.’s chief executive, he “visited the Thai operation in 2012,” the report said.
“ExxonMobil has had a business presence in Thailand for more than 120 years,” Exxon said on its website.
“We have a full range of downstream operations including a refinery and chemical manufacturing at Sriracha, a network of distribution terminals and service stations along with a strong lubricants presence. We also operate an onshore natural gas production site in the Nam Phong district, Khon Kaen province.
“In addition, we have a Business Support Center in Bangkok that provides accounting, human resources, information technology, retail operations, procurement, treasury, card operations, taxes and customer services to various ExxonMobil affiliates around the world.”
-Scoop World – Richard S. Ehrlich