BANGKOK, Thailand -- U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine
Corps Gen. Joe Dunford has arrived in Bangkok after visiting
Australia, emphasizing the U.S. is "not a declining power" and will
improve military relations with Thailand's armed forces which seized
control in a 2014 coup.
   He met on February 7 Thailand's coup-installed Prime Minister
Prayuth Chan-ocha, Gen. Dunford's counterpart Armed Forces Supreme
Commander Gen. Thanchaiyan Srisuwan, and Defense Minister Prawit
   Mr. Prawit is currently under investigation by the junta's National
Anti-Corruption Commission for possession of up to 25 expensive
wristwatches worth $1.24 million but is a lifetime colleague of the
prime minister and not expected to suffer punishment.
   He denied wrongdoing, offered to resign, and said the timepieces
were "loaned" to him by friends, including a wealthy man who died one
year ago.
   Critics did not believe that explanation and said even if it were
true, expensive loans should be illegal because it could result in a
conflict of interest.
   Gen. Dunford and Mr. Prawit discussed "security in the
Asia-Pacific, military ties" and other issues, according to a Thai
government report.
   Gen. Dunford's arrival in Bangkok on February 6 is "advancing
U.S.-Thailand military-to-military relations," the U.S. Defense
Department said.
   "A military coup in 2014 canceled any high-level contacts between
the two militaries," the department said.
   "The contacts have been re-energized now that the Thai government
has scheduled free elections later this year."
   Prime Minister Prayuth, who led the coup, has not confirmed a date
for elections amid recent moves by his junta to postpone the polls to
2019, which has sparked ongoing complaints by pro-democracy activists,
politicians and local media.
   Gen. Dunford's visit comes just before the Pentagon's massive
February 13-23 multinational military Exercise Cobra Gold 2018.
   "Approximately 6,800 U.S. personnel directly participating both
ashore and afloat [join] up to 30 nations either directly
participating in or observing" Cobra Gold 18 in scattered locations
across Thailand, said the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok.
   The 37th iteration of the annual exercise includes about 4,000
troops from co-host Thailand, a U.S. treaty ally.
   Forces from Singapore, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and Malaysia
are arriving along with a small number of soldiers from China and
   Australia, Canada, Bangladesh and Nepal are among attendees.
   "You cannot dispute the facts from a security perspective about
U.S. presence in the Pacific, U.S. commitment in the Pacific and U.S.
capability in the Pacific," Gen. Dunford said.
   "Certainly the physical evidence from a military dimension reflects
that we are not a declining power," he said.
   "If someone is trying to undermine the United States politically,
diplomatically and from a security perspective, the first target would
be our network of allies and partners," Gen. Dunford said in a Defense
Department media report.
   "When you see the message that the United States is a declining
power, it's a deliberate effort to undermine the credibility of our
alliances and relationships in the region," he said.
   "No matter how you rack and stack it...there is no other nation
that has the military capability that we have in the Pacific."
   Thailand has no territorial claims in the nearby disputed South
China Sea, but Bangkok offers to play a neutral diplomatic role
between the U.S. and its Southeast Asian partners who are confronting
China's increasing domination of those strategic waters.
   The U.S. and China are diplomatic, economic and military friends
with Thailand, and the two larger nations are often perceived as
competing for Bangkok's loyalty.
   For example, the U.S. has been training Thailand's navy in
submarine warfare to guard its two coasts which border the Gulf of
Thailand and the Andaman Sea.
   China is selling three submarines to Thailand to boost the fragile navy.
   Thailand's dual coastlines allow access to reach the South China
Sea and the Indian Ocean.
   "It is important to maintain relations with Thailand, because they
have outstanding visibility in the maritime domain in a critical part
of the world," Gen. Dunford said, according to the Defense Department.
   "Now, the reason I have military-to-military relations with an ally
is to develop interoperability and to be prepared to fight together,
should that be required."
   Before arriving in Thailand, Gen. Dunford was in Australia where he
met on Saturday to February 3-5 with Air Chief Marshal Mark D.
Binskin, chief of the Australian Defense Force.
   On February 6, Gen. Dunford visited a U.S. Marine Rotational Force
assigned to Royal Australian Air Force Base Darwin.
   The U.S. and Australia are increasing "collaboration in
counter-terrorism efforts and regional capacity-building," U.S.
officials said, according to the department.