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Thailand hosts war games with biggest US attendance in a decade

U.S. Marines gather after exercises in the coastal Thai province of Rayong in February 2020. (Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Thailand kicked off an international military exercise with the biggest U.S. attendance in a decade as Washington seeks to build on ties with a key security partner at a time of rising global geopolitical competition with Beijing.

The Cobra Gold military drill in Thailand, which runs from Feb. 28 to March 10, is the largest joint military exercise in mainland Asia involving 30 countries. It has been running for more than four decades and this year was billed as a return to full-scale drills after the pandemic.

More than 6,000 U.S. military personnel will be attending the war games — the biggest showing in a decade and Admiral John Aquilino, the top commander for the Indo-Pacific region, is participating in a sign of renewed U.S.-Thai security ties, said America’s envoy to Thailand Robert Godec.

“Cobra Gold helps build interoperability, advances our common interests, and serves as a demonstration of our dedication to our allies and partners in ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” Godec said at the opening ceremony of the war games in Rayong province, east of Bangkok.

Cobra Gold is an indicator on the strength of U.S.-Thai ties in recent years, with Washington’s criticism of the Thai coup in 2014 by army general-turned-premier Prayuth Chan-Ocha resulting in a downgraded presence at subsequent joint drills.

A greater U.S. presence in the joint war games is seen as a significant development in Washington’s “dance” to balance its values and geopolitical interests with the rise of China, said Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Thailand’s Naresuan University.

“By increasing the number of U.S. troops back into Cobra Gold, this re-calibrates U.S.-Thai relations more on a par with China,” he said. “So there is more of a hedging policy for Thailand in terms of trying to create balance between the two great powers that matter most to Thailand.”

Thailand under Prayuth, who stayed on as head of a civilian government after an election in 2019, has been moving closer to China in trade. China is currently the largest source of annual foreign investments in Thailand and Chinese tourists remain key to the country’s tourism industry that is a main economic growth driver.

This year’s Cobra Gold exercises will be attended by more than 7,000 military personnel from countries including Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, and South Korea. Chinese army personnel will take part in some of the exercises.


© 2023 Bloomberg L.P

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