“This is a long game and a long-term trend,” said Patrick M. Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific security program at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank with close ties to the administration. “They’re doing the best they can with what they have, and what they have is considerable. The problem is whether it is sustainable, and that’s what everybody in the region is asking.”
After years of paying little attention to Thailand, which was rattled by a coup in 2006, senior Pentagon leaders have rediscovered Bangkok. Dempsey’s visit was the first by a chairman of the Joint Chiefs in more than a decade.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter is scheduled to make a trip next month. And Thailand has extended a formal invitation to Panetta, who also met with the Thai minister of defense at a conference in Singapore this month.
The two countries are discussing whether to run a joint military hub for responding to the devastating cyclones, tsunamis and other natural disasters that frequently strike the region. The center would be located at the Royal Thai Navy Air Field at U-Tapao, about 90 miles south of Bangkok.
The U.S. military is well-acquainted with U-Tapao (OOH-ta-pow), where it built the two-mile-long runway — one of the longest in Asia — in the 1960s. The Pentagon relied on the airfield as a major staging and refueling base during the Vietnam War, but withdrew its forces from the country in 1976 at the direction of the Thai government.
In the 1980s, the United States and Thailand resumed gradual military cooperation. The Thai government has allowed the U.S. Air Force to use U-Tapao as a stopover for troop transit flights to the Middle East. The base is also the center for the annual Cobra Gold military exercises, which started out as a U.S.-Thai training program but now involves more than 20 countries.
U.S. officials have been vague in public about how many troops they might send to U-Tapao or what missions they might perform if the disaster-relief center comes to fruition.
The lack of information has bred suspicion in the Thai media and among opposition lawmakers, who have held up a separate project that would allow NASA to operate climate-change surveillance flights from U-Tapao this fall. Chinese officials have also expressed skepticism about an expanded U.S. military presence.
Catharin Dalpino, a former State Department official and Southeast Asia expert, said any new U.S.-Thai military accords were likely to be “modest.” She noted that Thailand has a history of working closely with both superpowers and would be unlikely to sign any agreements that would alienate either Washington or Beijing.
“The Thais have a long relationship with China and a positive relationship with China, but they do not see this as contradictory with maintaining a treaty alliance with the United States and a strong economic relationship with the United States,” she said.
Some U.S. military officials said they also would like to upgrade naval access to Thai ports. The U.S. Navy is preparing to base four of its newest warships — known as Littoral Combat Ships — in Singapore and would like to rotate them periodically to Thailand and other southeast Asian countries.
The Navy is also pursuing options to conduct joint airborne surveillance missions from Thailand, the Philippines and Australia, officials said. Pentagon leaders said one of their highest strategic priorities is to improve their surveillance of shipping traffic and military movements throughout Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, home to some of the busiest trade routes in the world.
In 2014, for instance, the Navy is scheduled to begin deploying new P-8A Poseidon reconnaissance and anti-submarine aircraft to the Pacific, replacing the Cold War-era P-3C Orion surveillance planes.
The Navy is preparing to deploy new high-altitude surveillance drones to the Asia-Pacific region around the same time. Under current plans, the drones will be based on Guam, but U.S. officials are also searching for Asian partners willing to host the aircraft.