BANGKOK, Thailand -- President Donald Trump may strengthen
Washington's support for Bangkok's military government after sending
the head of the U.S. Pacific Command to open a 10-day Cobra Gold
military exercise on Valentine's Day, the highest-level officer to
arrive since Thailand's 2014 coup.
But Mr. Trump's silence on U.S.-Thailand relations has analysts
wondering if he will follow through, or risk allowing Bangkok to drift
closer to Beijing.
The Trump administration's focus in the Asia-Pacific region
includes Beijing's territorial claims in the South China Sea, Taiwan's
separate status from China, North Korea's nuclear ambitions, and the
spread of Islamic terrorism.
"A Trump administration, less concerned with issues of human
rights, could see a return to full American engagement, but at this
point, Trump's approach to Asia is unclear and contradictory at best,"
former Canadian ambassador to Thailand Phil Calvert said on February 7
in "A Diplomat's Assessment" published by the Canadian International
"Given the long history of cooperation and the key strategic role
of Thailand in the Pacific, it is unlikely that Thailand would have a
major break with the U.S.," Mr. Calvert said.
"Foreign policy was limited and largely incoherent in Trump's
election campaign, characterized by an isolationism both anachronistic
and ill-advised," said Benjamin Zawacki in a recent opinion piece.
"Thailand [was] not even mentioned," said Mr. Zawacki, author of a
forthcoming book titled, "Thailand: Shifting Ground Between the U.S.
and a Rising China."
The February 14-24 Cobra Gold will stage an amphibious assault
along the gulf near Bangkok, evacuation of non-combatants from
multiple locations, and live firing of combined weaponry.
Cobra Gold drills began on Thai soil in 1982. It is the largest
multilateral military exercise in Asia.
"There will be up to 29 nations either directly participating in,
or observing, Cobra Gold 2017 with approximately 3,600 U.S. personnel
directly participating in the various events both ashore and afloat,"
the U.S. Embassy in Thailand announced.
Washington shrank Cobra Gold from 7,000 U.S. personnel to 3,600 in
2015 after the Thai military seized power in a bloodless 2014 coup by
toppling an elected government.
Washington also stopped $4.7 million in security assistance,
training and other military aid.
Pacific Command's [PACOM's] Adm. Harry Harris's arrival "would send
a strong signal to the international community that the U.S. remains
engaged strategically in the region as before," wrote Kavi
Chongkittavorn, a columnist at Thailand's Nation news.
"Trump and his foreign policy team have made contradictory remarks
on the future of U.S. foreign agenda in Asia, generating lots of
anxieties among regional leaders," Mr. Kavi said.
Adm. Harris's opening of Cobra Gold "is clearly a further step
toward a renormalization of the security relationship," said Gregory
Poling, an Asia expert with the Washington-based Center for Strategic
and International Studies.
"I think what PACOM is trying to do is send a message that we want
to get over this hump," Mr. Poling said according to Stars and
Stripes, a news outlet authorized by the U.S. Department of Defence.
"It is not common for an officer of Adm. Harris's rank to attend
these sorts of events," Gen. Thanchaiyan Srisuwan, head of Thailand's
Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Reuters.
"It is a good signal for Thai-American relations, and shows that
the U.S. has given importance to this region and this exercise," Gen.
Adm. Harris's visit comes after Gen. Chalermchai Sittisart's
promotion in September to be the new army commander-in-chief, a
powerful position which sometimes leads to becoming prime minister.
Gen. Chalermchai received military training in America.
"If we exercise our authority justly, the people will eventually
accept us," Gen. Chalermchai said in a speech to Thai troops on
The army "will become a main pillar supporting government efforts
to run the country," he told the 1st Army which participated in past
and recent coups.
Thailand is a U.S. treaty ally. But after the 2014 putsch, the
junta dramatically improved relations with China and Russia.
Meanwhile, relations with the U.S. zigzagged whenever the
Washington criticized the regime's lack of human rights and political
freedom or called for fresh elections.
During the past year however Washington's public statements
appeared less frequently, with U.S. Ambassador Glyn Davies tweeting
enthusiastic updates about meeting Thai officials.
The envoy is a foreign service career diplomat and is expected to
remain in place under President Trump.
Competitive weapons sales to Thailand are also a U.S. concern.
The junta recently backed away from buying more U.S.-made Black
Hawk helicopters and now prefers Russian MI-17 helicopters, the
Bangkok Post reported.
Purchases of Chinese tanks and submarines are also planned.
In 2015, the first-ever joint air exercise by China and Thailand
included 180 Chinese officers and top pilots at a Thai base in Korat,
used by the U.S. Air Force to bomb Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia during
the Vietnam War.
Minority ethnic Malay-Thai Muslim separatists in three southern
provinces continue to pose a danger to this Buddhist-majority
country's armed forces.
More than 6,000 people on all sides have died in the conflict since
2004, which the army struggles to contain.
"The conflict in Thailand's south does not have a military
solution, but governments are slow or reluctant to realize this," Mr.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the 2014 when he was army
chief, sent a congratulatory message to President Trump on January 20.
"Your victory is remarkable and clear evidence that the American
people have placed their trust and confidence in you to lead the
country forward," Mr. Prayuth said in his message, emphasizing more
than 180 years of relations shared by the two countries.
Mr. Prayuth often expresses anger during news conferences and
castigates reporters, so when asked if he and Mr. Trump had similarly
blunt personalities, Mr. Prayuth replied:
"I don’t know. Is that good or not? I'm not a politician.
"Sometimes I speak too sincerely and might not be polite, but I
actually never hold grudges against anyone," Mr. Prayuth told
"I could be angry again, but it's my own personality."
President Trump and Mr. Prayuth apparently have not talked by
telephone, one senior Thai official said.
"I asked my colleagues and they said, 'Not yet. They haven't talked
yet.' I have no idea why not.
"We might not be on the top of their priority," he said, asking not
to be identified because he was not authorized to discuss the issue.
Thai government officials heard that Rex Tillerson was "a
businessman" and are interested in how he will direct the State
Department, he said.
"I do not have any information to share on the issues," about a
Trump-Prayuth phone call or Mr. Tillerson's previous work in Thailand,
a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman said.
Thai media reported Mr. Tillerson was president of Esso Exploration
and Production Korat in northeast Thailand from 1995-98.
Exxon Mobil Corp. is the parent of Esso, Mobil and ExxonMobil companies.
He "oversaw the Thai exploration and production unit of Esso in
Khon Kaen province. The unit operated a small natural gas field," The
Nation news reported.
"He was not permanently posted in Thailand. Instead, he made trips
from the United States."
When Mr. Tillerson later became ExxonMobil Corp.'s chief executive,
he "visited the Thai operation in 2012," the report said.
"ExxonMobil has had a business presence in Thailand for more than
120 years," Exxon said on its website.
"We have a full range of downstream operations including a refinery
and chemical manufacturing at Sriracha, a network of distribution
terminals and service stations along with a strong lubricants
presence. We also operate an onshore natural gas production site in
the Nam Phong district, Khon Kaen province.
"In addition, we have a Business Support Center in Bangkok that
provides accounting, human resources, information technology, retail
operations, procurement, treasury, card operations, taxes and customer
services to various ExxonMobil affiliates around the world."
BANGKOK, Thailand -- President Donald Trump may strengthen