The Pentagon is sending 3,600 troops to Thailand this week to participate in a major military exercise, U.S. officials said, even though the country remains under the control of Thai generals who ousted a democratically elected government last year.
The Obama administration suspended military aid and exchanges with Bangkok after the military coup in May. Thailand is still under martial law and its military junta has shown little willingness to relinquish power, but the Obama administration has decided to temporarily set aside political objections to the coup and proceed with the annual exercise, dubbed Cobra Gold.
Cobra Gold is billed as one of the largest multinational military exercises in the world. It has been jointly led by Thailand and the United States for more than three decades; this year’s version will feature about 13,000 troops from two dozen Pacific nations, including Japan, Indonesia and South Korea.
The Obama administration was reluctant to pull out, fearing it could jeopardize Washington’s long-standing military ties with Thailand, an ally for nearly two centuries. It also worried that a break with Bangkok would drive the Thai generals closer to China, which is jousting with the United States for influence in Southeast Asia.
At the same time, U.S. officials are wary of being seen as endorsing or cooperating with the Thai junta and its ruler, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha. In contrast to prior years, the Pentagon has played down its involvement in this month’s Cobra Gold, which begins Monday and runs through Feb. 20.
Marine Lt. Col. Jeffrey Pool, a Pentagon spokesman, declined to comment, referring questions to the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok.
In an e-mailed statement, Melissa Sweeney, an embassy spokeswoman, said U.S. officials “decided this year to proceed with a significantly refocused and scaled down Cobra Gold 2015 exercise, in light of the Thai military’s ouster of the civilian government.”
She said this year’s exercise would place a greater emphasis on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. A large-scale amphibious landing exercise has been canceled, she added, though she acknowledged some live-fire training would still take place. The U.S. troop contingent of 3,600 is down from 4,300 last year.
In the past, the Defense Department trumpeted Cobra Gold as one of its most important joint military exercises. Journalists were taken into the jungle to witness survival training courses, with Thai instructors teaching U.S. Marines how to drink cobra blood and eat insects.
The U.S. military is also planning to proceed next month with another joint exercise with Thailand, known as Cope Tiger, Sweeney said. Cope Tiger is an air exercise involving dozens of aircraft and air-defense units. About 160 U.S. troops participated in the last Cope Tiger, in March 2014, at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base. The Singapore Air Force joined in as well.
The Obama administration reacted sternly at first last May when the Thai generals deposed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the second military coup to take place in the country since 2006. U.S. officials suspended about $4.7 million in military aid, canceled some small-scale exercises and halted an officer exchange program.
“While we value our long friendship with the Thai people, this act will have negative implications for the U.S.-Thai relationship, especially for our relationship with the Thai military,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry warned at the time.
The Pentagon, however, has been hesitant to cut ties. U.S. military commanders prize the access they have to the Royal Thai Navy Air Field at U-Tapao, which has one of the longest runways in Asia.
Prior to the coup, U.S. defense officials had worked hard to cultivate Thailand, culminating in a 2012 visit by then-Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta to Bangkok, where he signed an accord to upgrade the military alliance.
Since the coup, U.S. officials have tried to walk a fine line. Last month, a senior U.S. diplomat, Daniel R. Russel, became the highest-ranking Obama administration official to visit Bangkok since the junta took charge. In a Jan. 26 speech, he lauded the history of U.S.-Thai relations but also criticized the generals for their undemocratic ways.
“I’ll be blunt here,” Russel said. “When an elected leader is deposed, impeached by the authorities that implemented the coup, and then targeted with criminal charges . . . the international community is left with the impression that these steps could be politically driven.”
Russel’s remarks angered the junta, which demanded a formal explanation from the U.S. Embassy.
A few days later, the Thai generals gave a more pointed response. Prayuth, the junta chief, met with China’s defense minister in Bangkok, discussed how to expand military cooperation with Beijing, and thanked him for “understanding the political situation in Thailand.”