Cobra Gold puts the US in a pickle

 By John E. Carey – posted Thursday, 15 February 2007

The largest US-Thailand military exercise, “Cobra Gold”, is the topic of high level diplomatic and political discussions this week.

Cobra Gold is a regularly-scheduled joint-combined military exercise and is the latest in the continuing series of US-Thai military exercises designed to ensure regional peace and strengthen the ability of the Royal Thai Armed Forces to defend Thailand or respond to regional contingencies. Cobra Gold has also allowed anti-terrorism training to flow from the US to Thailand.

Thailand has a Muslim separatist insurgency that has killed almost 2,000 people in its southern provinces.

Last September a bloodless military coup in Thailand deposed the democratically elected government and the generals appointed their own leadership. The US condemned the action and withheld US$24 million in military aid from Thailand in protest to the coup.

But then the unexpected happened.

China, we are told, offered to fill the void.

The former prime minister, who lost his job in the coup, Thaksin Shinawatra, moved his base of operations to Beijing. Mr Thaksin is a billionaire with connections all over the world.

Then, on January 22, 2007, China hosted the Thai Army Commander-in-Chief, the Communist People’s Daily reported. “The Chinese army would like to promote friendly relations with the Thai army,” Chinese Defence Minister Cao Gangchuan said in a meeting with Thai Army Commander-in-Chief Sonthi Boonyaratkalin.

To sweeten the deal, the Chinese put on the table a special assistance package that included US$49 million worth of military aid and training.

Beijing continued with visits to Thailand by several senior Chinese officials, mostly in the military and security fields. State councillor Tang Jiaxuan, a former Chinese foreign minister, will be visiting Bangkok after Tet, the Chinese New Year. He is expected to reaffirm Beijing’s support of the Council for National Security (CNS), which is what the coup leaders are calling themselves.

Thai Foreign Minister Nitya Pibulsonggram asked the US Department of State for approval to visit Washington last month but was rebuffed. No senior US diplomat has visited Thailand since the coup.

Now the United States is in something of a pickle. Going ahead with Cobra Gold will look like the US doesn’t really care if a cadre of generals overthrows an elected prime minister in an allied government. But to cancel Cobra Gold may push Thailand further away from the US and closer to China.

Yet there is some precedent for the US to look the other way when democracy isn’t likely. Both President Bush and Vice President Cheney have gone out of their way to praise President (and General) Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan for his war against terror efforts. And just this week, the new US Secretary of Defense, Mr Robert Gates, made a last minute change to his schedule to visit President Musharraf in Pakistan to again show US support and to discuss the war against terror.

Musharraf took power in Pakistan on October 12, 1999 after a coup d’etat ousted Nawaz Sharif, the democratically elected Prime Minister of Pakistan. Musharraf assumed for himself the title of President on June 20, 2001. Each year Musharraf says he is just a few years away from restoring democracy.

Before the coup last September, Thailand was one of five countries in the Pacific region with which the US had a functioning security alliance. The other four countries are Japan, the Republic of Korea, Australia, and the Republic of the Philippines. Thailand and the US had an extensive bilateral military exercise program.

Kavi Chongkittavorn, the executive editor of Bangkok’s leading English language newspaper, the nation, wrote for the February 12, 2007 edition:

The coup’s aftermath and the latest Thai decision to produce copycat licensed drugs along with subsequent negotiated compromises, not to mention the unfinished Free Trade Agreement, have already turned off some Washington decision makers. They are the same people who follow Thailand’s abuse of Karen and Hmong refugees and the country’s attempt to forcibly repatriate them. Thaksin Shinawatra’s hiring of James Baker’s law firm to lobby the Congress and the US government to advocate for his return to power will also increase anti-American sentiment over here.

In the coming days the US has a critical decision. It must go ahead with Cobra Gold or a scaled down co-operative military event with Thailand. Or it can punish Thailand by cancelling the event; which may push Thailand further into China’s sphere of influence.

Wantanee in Thailand contributed to this report.

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