Can Cobra Gold be further multilateralized?

By Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation (Thailand)/Asia News Network

From a humble beginning as a joint military exercise between Thailand and the U.S. involving select personnel of the marine corps in 1982, Cobra Gold has now become the world’s largest. Nearly two dozen countries are actively taking part as well as observing the annual war game. Malaysia is the latest addition with 13 troops training this year — beginning this week with the headquarters in Chiangmai. It is quite amazing that Cobra Gold has survived against all political odds plaguing Thailand’s domestic condition and subsequently ties with the U.S. relations. Both sides have learned with great pains from their diplomatic history and practices that actions speak louder than words. The Manila Pact (1954) coupling with the Thanat-Rush communique (1962), which is the pillar of their security cooperation, has not guaranteed results.

Truth be told, both sides disappointed each other as a dependable ally. They have fallen short on lists of expectations. Washington had its own global strategic needs, which Bangkok failed to fulfill. In a similar vein, Bangkok also desired more visible moral support from the U.S. especially during times of political turmoil, which normally was slow in coming as it does not augur well with the U.S. pronouncement of democratic values. Of late, details of the U.S. Embassy’s cable dated 25 January 2010, released through Wikileaks, further rubbed salt into the wounds of increasing delicate Thai-U.S. relations. That helps to explain why for the past three decades, Cobra Gold has essentially come to symbolize the most tangible outcome of Thai-U.S. military cooperation. Washington suspended the annual exercise only once, in 1992 following a coup two months earlier, and quickly resumed with a full-scale operation the following year. Although possibilities of suspension were brought up in Washington’s Beltway after the coup in September 2006, the exercise nonetheless was held the following year without a hitch. Gone were the days when Thai-U.S. military leaders had to figure out together who were their common enemies. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, annual war games, especially along the porous borders with neighboring countries, were indicative of potential security threats perceived by their commanders.

These days, they have come to terms with the situation of enemy deprivation and are quite satisfied to tackle common peace-related issues and transnational problems including anti-piracy, narcotics and human trafficking, humanitarian and disastrous relief operations. A lot of energy is also placed on community building and reconstruction work.