Cobra Gold, the weeks-long multinational military exercise that began on Feb. 9 in Thailand, highlighted the difficult balancing act facing Washington as it engages with the military-backed government of its long-time ally.

The annual training exercise, the largest in the Asia-Pacific, has evolved in recent years into a marquee event for both the U.S.-Thai alliance and Washington’s larger engagement in Asia. Given its importance, U.S. policymakers have been clear since last October that Cobra Gold would continue in 2015, but would be scaled back — certain exercises were removed and a smaller U.S. contingent took part. Instead, the focus would rest on more noncombat training to express Washington’s objection to the military government in Bangkok.

Since that announcement, U.S. and Thai officials have engaged in a low-level public relations war over the exercises and their scope. The Americans said that the exercises were cut back amid concerns over Thailand’s May 2014 coup d’etat. Bangkok has insisted that any event changes were minor and not related to the coup. Sniping worsened in the weeks before Cobra Gold, fueled by the Thai authorities’ anger over comments made by Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel.

Speaking at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University in late January, Russel, who heads the State department’s East Asia and Pacific Affairs bureau, was critical of the junta’s indefinite reliance on martial law and refusal to specify a timetable for returning the country to democracy. Nevertheless, the comments were consistent with U.S. policy since then-army commander General Prayuth Chan-ocha led the May 22 military coup last year.

But the U.S. remarks, and the furious reaction by Thai authorities, underscored the difficulties the U.S. faces in trying to remain both critical of and engaged with Bangkok, and why that engagement has appeared confused at times. In the wake of the military coup, the U.S. pulled out of an ongoing joint exercise with the Thai military, cancelled $3.5 million in military aid, and limited official visits. Yet engagement in other areas has continued.

Hijacking the narrative

In the last few weeks, Bangkok seems to have succeeded in hijacking the narrative surrounding Cobra Gold and bilateral relations. U.S. authorities have been hesitant to clarify changes made to the exercises. They have also been unable, or unwilling, to counter the insistence of Thai authorities that the exercises prove that all is well in the U.S.-Thai relationship, or claims from the human rights lobby that Washington is pushing aside their concerns and embracing the junta.

Both narratives are false. The U.S. had little choice but to limit the live-fire maneuvers at Cobra Gold and cut the numbers of troops participating. The field exercises would give prestige to the Thai military; the reduction in head count was the clearest way for the U.S. to express disapproval of continued military rule. And in the long-run, such exercises would be less important for building relationships among U.S. security partners than staff training at the annual event, in which many more countries take part.

Coup or not, Thailand is too important to U.S. Asian policy for Washington to risk alienating the nation in the long-term. The kingdom is a major non-NATO ally, providing critical military access and assistance for U.S. forces. Thailand is also America’s oldest partner in the region. As a political and economic heavyweight in Southeast Asia, it is key in the Obama administration’s “pivot” or “rebalance” toward Asia. Despite anxieties among regional governments about possible diversion of the U.S. focus toward the Middle East and Ukraine, the administration maintains that its long-term strategic interests rest in Asia. That assertion was given credence by the recent U.S. National Security Strategy, which reiterates a long-term commitment to economic and security engagement in Asia. The request to increase assets for the region in the president’s 2016 budget proposal was a further sign of continuing commitment.

The China syndrome

Another very genuine concern that has kept U.S. leaders from alienating Thailand with additional sanctions is the growing likelihood that China could swoop in and eat Washington’s lunch. U.S. policymakers should not overemphasize the China threat, although the China factor has been a useful “bogeyman” for some in Washington to wheel out in arguments to increase involvement in Asia.

Chinese engagement with the Thai military has grown rapidly in recent years, particularly since the coup, with recent high-level visits on both sides. But Sino-Thai relations remain far from the scope and quality of the U.S.-Thai security engagement. That was evident during the recent weeklong visit to Bangkok by China’s defense minister Chang Wanquan. The meeting was heavy on symbolism, and carried an implicit rebuke of U.S. policy to keep Thailand’s junta at arms-length. Even so, the visit, mainly appeared to produce vague commitments to step up bilateral military cooperation and repeated previously announced initiatives, such as an agreement to hold joint air force exercises.

As much as U.S. policymakers remain committed to maintaining a long friendship with Thailand, the Obama administration correctly believes that showing strong and consistent support for democracy is critical in a region that is struggling to turn toward democracy. After turning a blind eye to the military coup in Egypt, and provoking strong criticism at home and abroad, the administration could not rationalize the calm acceptance of a military takeover in a more democratically inclined ally — Thailand — without censure. That was perceived by Thai elites as a double standard, fueling resentment.
Washington is right to maintain engagement with both the Thai military and the populace. The relationship is too important to stagnate or fail. The U.S. has also been correct to publicly criticize and impose minor sanctions. There is wide consensus among independent analysts that the junta’s plans to remake Thailand as a pseudo-democracy will fail.

The U.S. government has not sold its message well in Thailand, or back home. The narrative in Bangkok is that Washington is arrogant and uses different standards for different nations. In Washington, some say that the administration is coddling a military junta and neglecting human rights issues due to realpolitik concerns. Neither is accurate. The decision to scale down — rather than cancel — Cobra Gold highlights Washington’s post-coup policy dilemma: demonstrating commitment to Thailand and its centrality in U.S. engagement with Asia, while signaling displeasure with the junta. That strategy cannot succeed if the prevailing narratives in Bangkok and Washington do not reflect those nuances.

To date, U.S. officials have prioritized caution over clarity in discussing U.S. engagement with Thailand, preferring to avoid details rather than risk alienating Thais or creating misunderstandings. The confusion surrounding Cobra Gold, and the false narratives it has created, highlight the shortcomings of that strategy. Overall, the U.S. has struck a good balance in its engagement with the Thai junta, but it must be more explicit in explaining its strategy and the reasoning behind it.

This article originally appeared in Nikkei Asian Review.

About Gregory Poling

Gregory B. Poling is senior fellow for Southeast Asia and director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at CSIS. He oversees research on U.S. foreign policy in the Asia Pacific, with a focus on the maritime domain and the countries of Southeast Asia. His research interests include the South China Sea disputes, democratization in Southeast Asia, and Asian multilateralism.