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This week our top story explores the significance of Cobra Gold in U.S. defense strategy for the Indo-Pacific. We also have an interview with journalist Patrick Winn, author of the book “Narcotopia: In Search of the Asian Drug Cartel That Survived the CIA,” on the quasi-independence of Myanmar’s Wa State.
The Diplomat Brief
May 15,
Taiwan Fellowship
Welcome to the latest issue of Diplomat Brief. This week our top story explores the significance of Cobra Gold in U.S. defense strategy for the Indo-Pacific. We also have an interview with journalist Patrick Winn, author of the book “Narcotopia: In Search of the Asian Drug Cartel That Survived the CIA,” on the quasi-independence of Myanmar’s Wa State.
Story of the week
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How Cobra Gold Helps the US Strengthen Its Indo-Pacific Partnerships

What Happened: Every year, the United States and its ally, Thailand, co-host one of the largest and oldest multinational military exercises in the world: Cobra Gold. Since its establishment as a bilateral drill in 1982, Cobra Gold has expanded; this year, it included 10 participating nations and nearly 9,000 troops. At heart, authors Xavier Brunson and Cody Chick note, “Exercise Cobra Gold provides a platform for regional partners to build military cooperation and interoperability.”

Our Focus: Brunson and Chick explain: “Exercise Cobra Gold, most recently held during February 27-March 8 in Thailand, serves as a tactical platform for facilitating military-to-military interactions and creating greater integrated assurance.” While there were many discrete parts to the overall drill, the main event saw seven nations simulating a response to a regional crisis that involved “large-scale combat operations and maritime security within a multi-domain environment.”

What Comes Next: But it’s not all about deterrence. Cobra Gold is unique in that it includes both U.S. allies and non-allies. Amazingly, China even took part, despite the heated competition underway in China-U.S. relations. As one U.S. Army engineer described his experience working alongside soldiers from Thailand, Malaysia, and China: “There was an eagerness or excitement from everyone that I wasn’t expecting... I think there was an unspoken awareness of how rare of an opportunity it was for these soldiers to work side by side, and they genuinely wanted to get to know one another.” Cobra Gold thus allows the United States to signal both its commitment and military readiness to defend its allies as well as its willingness to engage constructively with Beijing – a rare dual feat.

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Behind the News


Patrick Winn

Journalist Patrick Winn, author of the book “Narcotopia: In Search of the Asian Drug Cartel That Survived the CIA,” on Wa State’s role in the civil war in Myanmar: “Few will admit this, but the most stable government in Myanmar isn’t the one run by the military. It’s Wa State. There are no bombs raining down on the Wa nor any battles in its hills…. No matter who prevails in the end, the UWSA will turn to the winner and say: congrats, same deal as before?”

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This Week in Asia

Northeast Asia

Putin’s China Visit

With China’s President Xi Jinping freshly returned from his trip to Europe last week, it’s his turn to play host: Russian President Vladimir Putin will be in Beijing from May 16-17. It continues the tradition – broken only by the pandemic – of Putin making an annual trip to China, a sign of the deepening partnership between the two. But with China-Russia relations the major sticking point in China’s ties with EU members, Putin may not make progress on his wish-list, including a much desired (by Russia) breakthrough on the Power of Siberia 2 pipeline.

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South Asia

AAP Gets a Boost as Indian Elections Continue

Opposition leader Arvind Kejriwal of the AAP was released on bail by India’s Supreme Court on Friday, allowing him to re-join campaigning. The Delhi chief minister and his supporters claimed his arrest on corruption charges was a form of political persecution; now Kejriwal is hoping to energize his supporters and flip control of Delhi’s seats in Parliament. All seven of Delhi’s seats will be decided in voting on May 25.

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Southeast Asia

Singapore’s PM Lee Hsien Loong Steps Down

This week, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong left office after nearly two decades and handed power to his deputy, Lawrence Wong. The 51-year-old took the oath of office on Wednesday, bringing an end to an era in which Lee and his father, Singapore’s inaugural Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, have dominated the city-state’s politics. As Lee’s meticulously groomed successor, Wong is unlikely to rock the boat, and has promised to “keep [Singapore’s] miracle going for as long as I can.” But he inherits a number of thorny challenges, from a rapidly graying population and falling birthrates to growing China-U.S. tensions and the fraying of the globalized economic order that has underpinned Singapore’s remarkable economic success since 1965.

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Central Asia

Live-streamed Bishimbayev Trial Ends in Kazakhstan

Former Kazakh Minister of Economy Kuandyk Bishimbayev killed his wife in November 2023 and was sentenced to 24 years in prison after a live-streamed trial that shook Kazakhstan to its core. The trial catapulted the scourge of domestic violence to headline news once again and turned public attention to the process of justice, a consideration heightened because the case was decided by a hybrid jury rather than a judge alone. But this is not Bishimbayev’s first run-in with the law. In 2018 he was convicted of bribery and embezzlement and sentenced to 10 years – he was pardoned and released after only serving a year and a half of that sentence. Whether this trial truly shifts the narrative about domestic violence in Kazakhstan is yet to be seen, but for many Kazakh women there is no going backward.

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Visualizing APAC

Source: Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force

Port visits during Japan’s annual Indo-Pacific Deployment have ramped up considerably in the last four years.

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Word of the Week


अबकी बार, 400 पार

Ab ki baar, 400 paar: A BJP election slogan, meaning “This time, [the BJP] will cross 400” seats out of the 545 total in India’s lower house.

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Thailand’s Grand Reconciliation

The Diplomat Magazine | May 2024

Thailand’s Grand Reconciliation

This month, our cover story traces the tumultuous saga of the Shinawatra clan – now back in the establishment’s good graces 10 years after a coup sidelined both the family and Thailand’s democracy. We also analyze the duopoly formed by Kyrgyzstan’s president and security chief, and probe the contours of the Afghanistan-China-Pakistan trilateral. And, of course, we offer a range of reporting, analysis, and opinion from across the region.

Read the Magazine