The Case for Cobra Gold

Since Thai army chief-turned-junta leader turned Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha launched his May coup overthrowing the democratically elected but deeply troubled government of Yingluck Shinawatra, commentators in both Thailand and the United States have debated the US response.

Washington immediately canceled an ongoing joint exercise, pulling out troops already in place in Thailand, and severed all military aid earmarked for 2014 that had not yet been disbursed, totaling about US$3.5 million.

But the biggest debate has been about the crown jewel in the US-Thai military relationship—Cobra Gold, the largest multinational military exercise in the Asia Pacific. Playing host to Cobra Gold is a significant feather in the Thai military’s cap, and many observers understandably argued for the 2015 iteration to be canceled or moved out of Thailand as a sign of Washington’s continued disapproval of the coup.

The US government clearly struggled with this decision, arguing internally until many experts familiar with the planning that goes into the exercises assumed that it might be too late to hold them in February as usual even if they were given the green light.

Earlier this month, however, the administration finally made the call, and invited a wave of criticism by announcing the exercises would go ahead in a scaled-back form. The large field exercise portion of the exercise, which involves tens of thousands of troops, has been refocused, with a planned live-fire amphibious landing drill reportedly cut and a heightened focus on noncombat operations like military medicine and disaster relief. Difficult though it was, Washington made the right call.

Cobra Gold is undoubtedly a boost to the pride of Thailand’s armed forces. But it is also much more than that. Since its establishment in 1982, Cobra Gold has evolved into the preeminent multinational training exercise in the Asia Pacific, including active participation by Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, and the United States. In addition, recent years have seen an increasing number of nations send observers to the exercises, including Myanmar for the first time in 2014 and China in 2013.

All of this exposure is indispensable to building strategic trust and interoperability in the wider region, especially in critical areas like humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, military medicine, and search and rescue.

The exercises take months of planning each year and cannot be diverted to a new location quickly. Nor are other Asia-Pacific partners clamoring to welcome thousands of troops from the United States and many other regional states for such a large, sustained exercise. Moreover, those that are closest to the United States and might prove willing lack the space, facilities, and experience to make a simple, short-term transition to hosting Cobra Gold feasible.

While the large field exercises garner the lion’s share of attention, Cobra Gold actually includes three components: field exercises, multinational staff planning exercises, and humanitarian exercises. The planning exercises involve officers from across the region engaged in a simulated exercise, via computer, that usually focuses on some type of humanitarian or disaster relief operation. The value of these training opportunities for region-wide operations like the recent search for Malaysian Airlines flight 370 or the post-Typhoon Haiyan relief effort in the Philippines is substantial and growing year by year.

The humanitarian exercises in Cobra Gold involve significant goodwill garnered for the United States and significant good done for Thai communities. During the 2014 exercises, a team of 80 medical personnel from six nations including the United States gave basic medical, pediatric, dental, optometric, veterinary, and pharmaceutical services to local Thai communities. In addition, eight engineering projects were carried out to address vital needs.

Canceling those exercises would not only remove a vital opportunity to practice interoperability and coordination among regional states for future humanitarian assistance, but would also harm local Thai communities far more than it would the military junta.

By continuing Cobra Gold, Washington gets to maintain a long-standing exercise that has taken on a role at the heart of its regional engagement. By scaling back the exercise, however, and doing so publicly, the US government gets to reiterate its disapproval of the Thai junta and reinforce the importance that the United States places on democratic norms and good governance.

In recent weeks, Thailand’s leaders have tried to spin the Cobra Gold announcement by insisting that the 2015 exercises have not been changed in light of the coup, tying into their months-long narrative that the United States and other governments have come around to recognizing the legitimacy of the coup. The US Embassy in Bangkok and agencies in Washington must rebut this claim loudly and consistently, as they have done so far, by being forthright about what has been cut from Cobra Gold and why.

Gregory Poling (@GregPoling) is a Fellow, Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies (@SoutheastAsiaDC), CSIS