BANGKOK: Exercise Cobra Gold – the United States military’s largest exercise in the region – is underway in Thailand.
Cobra Gold, the largest and oldest multilateral military exercise in the Asia-Pacific, began as a US-Thai bilateral exercise more than 30 years ago.
It has now expanded to include regional partners as well and joining in this year are Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, said: “Cobra Gold now is not what it used to be. In the Cold War, it was an anti-communist front. After the Cold War in the first two decades or so, it was more a confidence building project designed to promote military cooperation and maintain stability.
“But in the last two, three years, it has taken on a new face. It has become an US vehicle for engaging the region in military terms but also to keep some checks on China’s assertiveness.”
Since 1982, Cobra Gold has been hosted by Thailand, a key US ally. Over the years, the region has lost the attention of the US because of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But with the US pulling out of both countries, their recently announced and much-discussed pivot towards Asia could see an increased engagement in Southeast Asia in military terms.
The US shift in focus comes at a time of increased tensions in the Asia-Pacific.
Conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea have become a potential flashpoint, involving China and several ASEAN member states.
And moves towards Democratic reforms in Myanmar could result in a “re-balancing” of American allies in the region.
Kavi Chongkittavorn, senior fellow at Institute of Strategic and International Studies Thailand, said: “Both the United States and Myanmar have readjusted their relations so smooth and so quickly. I would say this is at the expense of Thailand, because Thailand has not yet adjusted and fine-tuned its policy after the US pivot. Many countries have made quick adjustments except Thailand because of its domestic turmoil.”
This year, for the first time, Myanmar is participating in Cobra Gold, with two officers invited as observers – an indication of the US’ eagerness to engage with the newly open country.
Over the next few days, about 13,000 military personnel will conduct land, air and sea exercises.
They will also be involved in humanitarian projects and disaster response.
Given the current geopolitical and strategic outlook in the Asia-Pacific region, this year’s Cobra Gold could be more anticipated than before.