For U.S. military officials, the annual Cobra Gold military exercise – Asia’s largest multinational drill – is a symbol of the continuity of American regional commitment and the enduring strategic importance of the U.S.-Thailand alliance.
But this year’s iteration of the exercises in particular, which kick off on February 14, will be watched closely less for continuity than change (See: “US, Thailand to Launch 2017 Cobra Gold Military Exercises”). Donald Trump’s surprising win in the U.S. presidential elections has fueled hopes among some of warmer U.S.-Thai relations, which had grown frostier following a coup and the rise of a junta-led government in May 2014 (See: “What Will Donald Trump’s Asia Policy Look Like?”). Though it is much too soon to predict Trump’s approach towards Thailand, this unbridled enthusiasm needs some tempering.
The idea that U.S.-Thai relations have been frozen or even frosty since the May 2014 coup is vastly exaggerated. Close observers of the alliance also know that despite the initial chill that followed, it had in fact been on the uptick towards the end of the Obama administration, with the resumption of a strategic dialogue back in 2015 (See: “Exclusive: Managing the Strained U.S.-Thailand Alliance”). Seen from this perspective, the attendance of U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) chief Admiral Harry Harris at this year’s Cobra Gold exercises, though significant, needs to be seen as part of a gradual path to improved ties already underway, rather than some dramatic and new course correction by the Trump administration.
The case for a stronger alliance under Trump is also built on a rather shaky foundation. It rests on sloppy assumptions like the fact that Trump’s softer line on rights may lead him to be chummier with the junta, ignoring the reality that these ideals, as U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Glyn Davies put it in December, are part of the American government’s approach to the world, rather than just a president’s worldview. As was the case under the Obama administration and others before it, what the White House wants may not necessarily become U.S. policy once there is input from several other actors in the policymaking process, including other agencies like the State Department, the U.S. Congress, as well as rights groups.
Besides, the constraints on U.S.-Thai relations in recent years have been caused by the changing domestic developments in Thailand more so than the rigidity of the Obama administration. And, at least for now, that context still remains largely unchanged. With Thailand once again postponing the holding of elections to 2018 and delaying its full restoration to democratic governance, that situation will likely limit or at least frustrate a Trump administration’s ability to get the alliance to realize its full potential (See: “Why is Thailand Delaying Elections Until 2018?”).
The assumption of a new chapter for the U.S.-Thai alliance also based on a rather selective reading of what Trump has said and what his administration might do. More even-handed Thai diplomats understand that Trump’s softer tack on rights could also come with a harder line against free trade and perceived free-riding, or perhaps even a much greater focus on the Middle East relative to Asia following yet another quagmire there. These tendencies could pose both economic and strategic risks for Bangkok.
Perhaps most problematic from an alliance perspective is a tougher Trump approach towards China. If U.S.-China relations worsen and Washington leans more heavily on its allies and partners like Thailand to balance against Beijing, that would complicate Bangkok’s preferred approach of boosting ties with both powers.
All the more reason, then, to be more cautious about what the Trump era might mean for the U.S.-Thailand alliance. A new chapter might not necessarily read the way Thailand might want it to.