U-TAPAO NAVAL AIRFIELD, THAILAND —
Continuing tensions between Thailand's military junta, which seized power from the country’s elected government last May, and the United States, which has called for the immediate end to martial law and a return to democratic rule, has led to changes in an annual, multinational military training exercise in the kingdom.
At the Royal Thai Navy's U-Tapao airfield, this year’s exercise saw troops carry out a mock mass evacuation of Japanese, American and Thai civilians.
A devastating earthquake has struck in an Asian nation. Countries are anxious to rescue their traumatized nationals and get them out of harm's way. That is the scenario that played out at the tip of the Gulf of Siam on Sunday during the Cobra Gold military exercises.
The annual multinational drill, which has run for more than 30 years, this year involves some 6,700 participants and observers from 24 nations.
But the 2015 edition almost did not happen.
The United States took a hard look at canceling after Thailand's military carried out another coup last year. In the end, Washington decided to scale back Cobra Gold.
The U.S. canceled a large-scale amphibious landing to "focus on non-lethal activities, such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief," officials said last year when announcing they would participate in the event.
Gregory Poling, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the United States wanted to send a nuanced message to Thailand.
“It's one of still being a long term friend of Thailand, our longest-term ally in Asia, but also a sign of discontent with the coup,” Poling said.
Royal Thai Navy Rear Admiral Wannapol Glormgeao expressed relief that Cobra Gold went ahead this year. However, he lamented the lack of a maritime landing component.
The admiral said Thailand was thankful for the participating countries, saying the exercise "is useful for each country to improve relationship-building and to exchange experiences."
These simulations, he explained, are valuable for actual military operations.
Scenarios are helpful
The U.S. military's mission commander for the civilian evacuation drill, Marine Corps Captain Hector Contreras, agreed.
“If an actual operation comes up, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, that type of scenario, we know we have partners in this region of the world like Thais, like Japanese, who can partner with us, strengthen our ability to help the local nationals,” Contreras said.
But will Cobra Gold put on this kind of show next year, especially if Thailand remains under military rule?
It depends, analyst Poling said.
“Washington is eager to see exactly when the [Thai] military plans to step back and is doing everything they can to try to make it absolutely clear that we're willing to balance on the ledge here for a little bit. But by late 2015, early 2016, we expect to see a return to democratic elections,” Poling said.
Proponents of continuing Cobra Gold say if the U.S. military chooses to disengage from Thailand, the junta could seek closer ties with China.