Thai soldiers (front) followed by a US Air Force soldier (C), a US Army soldier (C,R) a US Marine soldier and Thai soldiers (R, back) parade during the opening ceremony of Cobra Gold 2016 in Sattahip on February 9, 2016. Photo: AFP/Nicolas Asfouri

US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Corps General Joe Dunford has arrived in Bangkok to emphasize that America is “not a declining power” and its intention to improve military relations with Thailand’s armed forces, which seized political control in a mid-2014 coup.

Dunford met on Wednesday (February 7) with coup-installed Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, his counterpart Armed Forces Supreme Commander General Thanchaiyan Srisuwan, and Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwon.

Prawit is currently under investigation by the junta’s National Anti-Corruption Commission for possession of up to 25 expensive wristwatches worth an estimated US$1.24 million, but is a lifetime colleague of the prime minister and not expected to suffer punishment.

Dunford and Prawit discussed “security in the Asia-Pacific, military ties” and other issues, according to a Thai government report. Dunford’s trip to Thailand follows on Prayuth’s visit with US President Donald Trump at the White House last October and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ attendance at the royal cremation ceremony for deceased King Bhumibol Adulyadej later that same month.

Those meetings, analysts say, have helped to reset bilateral ties after a period of stormy relations amid persistent US criticism of the coup and suspension of democracy under the previous Barack Obama administration.

US President Donald Trump and Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha at the White House, October 2, 2017, Washington, DC. Photo: AFP/Mandel Ngan

Dunford’s arrival in Bangkok on Tuesday (February 6) is “advancing US-Thailand military-to-military relations,” the US Defense Department said.

“A military coup in 2014 canceled any high-level contacts between the two militaries,” the department said. “The contacts have been re-energized now that the Thai government has scheduled free elections later this year.”

Prayuth, who led the 2014 coup, has not confirmed a date for elections amid recent moves by his junta to postpone the polls to 2019, which has sparked ongoing complaints from pro-democracy activists, politicians and local media.

Dunford’s visit comes in advance of the Pentagon’s massive February 13-23 multinational military exercise Cobra Gold 2018, Asia’s largest such joint maneuvers.

“Approximately 6,800 US personnel directly participating both ashore and afloat [join] up to 30 nations either directly participating in or observing” Cobra Gold 18 in various locations across Thailand, said the US Embassy in Bangkok.

US Marine Lieutenant General David Berger (R) and Royal Thai Armed Forces General Surapong Suwana-Adth (C) at the end of a live fire military display during 10-day multi-national Cobra Gold military exercise in February 2017. Photo: AFP/ Roberto Schmidt

The 37th iteration of the annual exercise includes about 4,000 troops from co-host Thailand, a US major non-Nato treaty ally. Forces from Singapore, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and Malaysia are arriving along with a small number of soldiers from China and India.

Australia, Canada, Bangladesh and Nepal will also be among the attendees. “You cannot dispute the facts from a security perspective about US presence in the Pacific, US commitment in the Pacific and US capability in the Pacific,” Dunford said.

“Certainly the physical evidence from a military dimension reflects that we are not a declining power,” he said. “If someone is trying to undermine the United States politically, diplomatically and from a security perspective, the first target would be our network of allies and partners,” Dunford said in a Defense Department media report.

“When you see the message that the United States is a declining power, it’s a deliberate effort to undermine the credibility of our alliances and relationships in the region,” he said. “No matter how you rack and stack it…there is no other nation that has the military capability that we have in the Pacific.”

Two US Air Force B-1B bombers fly over the South China Sea while operating with the destroyer USS Sterett. Photo: USAF/Richard Ebensberger

Thailand has no territorial claims in the nearby disputed South China Sea. Bangkok thus offers to play a neutral diplomatic role between the US and its Southeast Asian partners who are confronting China’s increasing domination of those strategic waters.

The US and China are diplomatic, economic and military friends with Thailand, and the two larger nations are often perceived as competing for Bangkok’s loyalty.

For example, the US has been training Thailand’s navy in submarine warfare to guard its two coasts which border the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea. China is selling three submarines to Thailand to boost the fragile navy.Thailand’s dual coastlines allow access to reach the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.

“It is important to maintain relations with Thailand, because they have outstanding visibility in the maritime domain in a critical part of the world,” Dunford said, according to the Defense Department.

“Now, the reason I have military-to-military relations with an ally is to develop interoperability and to be prepared to fight together, should that be required.”

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