Military personnel participate in amphibious exercise during the multinational exercise Cobra Gold 2023 in Chonburi province, Thailand, March 3, 2023. Photo: Twitter

BANGKOK – More than 3,800 US troops led 30 countries’ forces and observers through Cobra Gold, the Pentagon’s biggest Asian military exercise, which came to a live-fire drill end on March 10.

The 42nd iteration of Exercise Cobra Gold is robust again after dwindling for three years during Covid’s spread. Reports indicate the US sent the most troops in a decade to this year’s exercises.

“New to the annual exercise is the Combined Space Forces Coordination Center, where partner nations come together to integrate space capabilities,” said the US Defense Department’s DVIDS (Defense VI) website.

Military personnel from Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia joined the co-hosts – 3,000 Royal Thai Armed Forces personnel and more than 3,800 US Indo-Pacific Command troops – as full participants during the two weeks of planning and field exercises.

Drill partners and observers from 23 other countries bring this year’s total to more than 7,000 personnel on the land, sea and in the air for warfare and other scenarios.

Disaster and other humanitarian exercises include China, India and Australia, plus events involving Bangladesh, Brunei, Canada, France, Mongolia, Nepal, New Zealand, the Philippines, Fiji and the United Kingdom.

Brazil, Cambodia, Germany Greece, Kuwait, Laos, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Vietnam are observers at this year’s Cobra Gold.

“It brings together 30 countries from around the world to solve complex challenges that no single country can solve alone,” US Ambassador to Thailand Robert Godec said at Cobra Gold’s opening in eastern Rayong province on February 28.

The drills also aim to keep Thailand’s coup-empowered army allied with Washington, significantly at a time Beijing increases its political, economic, technological and cultural influence in the kingdom.

Military personnel in a drill at Cobra Gold 2023 in Chonburi, Thailand, March 3, 2023. Image: Facebook

“There has been resentment among Thai military officers and conservative politicians because of what is perceived as [Washington’s] high-handed, tutelary policy about what Thailand should and should not do – with regard to coups,” said Paul Chambers, a Southeast Asian Studies lecturer at Naresuan University in Thailand.

“The negative policy in Washington toward coups [in 2006 and 2014]…contributed to some extent in Bangkok moving toward a realist policy of “hedging” whereby a state creates balance between two great powers, in this case China versus the US,” Chambers said in an interview.

“The Thai military establishment does not like the United States for talking and pressing about military non-intervention in politics, and for the need to return democracy to the Thai people,” former foreign minister Kasit Piromya said in an interview.

“[The] Chinese, on the other hand, love to deal with authoritarian regimes,” said Kasit, who is also an ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) board member.

“Its [Beijing’s] not-interference posture that makes the Thai military establishment feel at ease and comfortable. Once the Chinese side got hold of the Thai military establishment, things got easier for them to influence.

“One-party system has some currency in the Thai conservative establishment, especially the military, but the question of freedom and a democratic way of life is quite widespread in Thai society,” Kasit said.

Another former foreign minister, Kantathi Suphamongkhon, suggested in an interview:

“The US should increase its engagement with Thailand and the Thai people in multidimensional ways – easier access for Thai diplomats in Washington to high-level US administration officials, as well as members of Congress and Senate,” Kantathi said.

Thailand, a long-time US strategic ally, is trying to purchase two US-built F-35 fighter jets, a procurement that is awaiting Washington’s approval.

Ten US-made Stryker armored personnel carriers purchased by the Royal Thai Army arrived in August 2022, bringing the military’s total to 130 Strykers since 2019.

Meanwhile, US-based Chevron Offshore Thailand, along with Thai and Japanese petroleum corporations, are studying how to inexpensively exploit possible oil and natural gas deposits off the southeastern coast, under the shallow Gulf of Thailand.

Similarly, off Thailand’s southwestern shores, “the US eyes the areas around the Bay of Bengal, particularly Myanmar (Burma), which is strategically located and endowed with natural resources,” said Piti Srisangham, director of Chulalongkorn University’s ASEAN center in Bangkok.

Previous Cobra Gold exercises included assaults against mock terrorists occupying offshore oil and gas platforms.

On the economic front, the US Commerce Department is bringing representatives from more than 100 US businesses to a Trade Winds ASEAN forum from March 13-15 in Bangkok to schmooze counterparts and others from more than 20 Asian countries.

Not to be outdone, more than 4,000 business leaders from China, plus the Chinese diaspora in other countries, are expected to flock to the 16th World Chinese Entrepreneurs Convention (WCEC) in Bangkok June 24-26, according to the Thai-Chinese Chamber of Commerce.

Technology is at the forefront of Thai-China business relations. China’s great leap forward into Thailand’s telecommunications includes installing high-tech Huawei systems, Beijing-inspired firewalls and other advanced cyber abilities.

Huawei is frequently boosted by local media and Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha’s government, which evolved from then-General Prayut’s 2014 coup when he was the army commander-in-chief.

Huawei is collaborating with Thailand’s Siriraj Hospital. Image: Facebook

A Huawei forum in Bangkok on October 2022, led by current Huawei chairman Ken Hu, trumpeted its ultra-fast 5G telecommunication’s ability to optimize TikTok and other video streams.

“We need to work together to fully unleash the power of 5G networks and expand into services like cloud and system integration,” Hu said.

In August 2022, the Thai government’s increasingly media-savvy Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) inked a “Digital Transformation and Innovation Development for Smart Tourism” memorandum of understanding to partner with Huawei Technologies’ Thailand unit.

“Huawei is committed to leveraging advanced technologies to heighten TAT’s position as the strategic leader driving Thailand towards being a world-class tourism destination,” said Huawei’s chief executive officer for Thailand, Abel Deng.

During a Bangkok visit in 2022, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said: “China and Thailand are not strangers, but siblings.”

That traditional slogan is based on Chinese immigrants, intermarriages, their shared ancestors, as well as geographic proximity, economic ties and cultural links.

“I think the people of the two countries will believe in our attempt to develop closer ties,” Wang said after meeting Prime Minister Prayut, according to press reports at the time.

In August 2022, China and Thailand conducted the 10-day Falcon Strike drill, their fourth joint air warfare exercise above this Southeast Asian nation since 2015. The drill, while tiny compared to Cobra Gold, was nonetheless indicative of growing China-Thailand strategic ties.

Since 1982, Cobra Gold has swollen from a US and Thai maritime drill to its current land, amphibious and airborne warfare, including combined arms live-fire, command staff instruction, public relief work and other activities.

“In 2003, President Bush designated Thailand as a major non-NATO ally,” Kasit said. “[The] Cobra Gold joint military exercise is still a major event in the US-Thai relationship.”

Exercise Cobra Gold’s official 2023 uniform patch displays a drawing of a white American eagle, with a stars-and-stripes breast shield, standing on a tiny Earth’s North Pole.

A goldish-colored, hooded and coiled cobra rises from under the South Pole – the head touching southeast Australia.

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978.

Excerpts from his two new nonfiction books, “Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. — Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York” and “Apocalyptic Tribes, Smugglers & Freaks” are available here.