Dragon Watch: China woos America's war buddy

BANGKOK, Thailand —  In early February, 6,000 U.S. marines and sailors staged the planet’s largest war games in Thailand, which hosted two weeks of beach storming, mock hostage rescues and live-fire drills.

This 29-years-running exercise, called “Cobra Gold,” is America’s largest display of military might in Asia. It is also the envy of Chinese generals, who now have their own plans to play war in U.S.-allied Thailand.

The Chinese have proposed a 2010 rebuff to Cobra Gold: an all-expenses paid buffet of air, naval and land drills throughout Thailand’s jungles and coasts. The People’s Liberation Army even wants to replicate America’s centerpiece exercise, a full-on coastal assault led by amphibious vehicles, gunships and helicopters circling the Gulf of Thailand.

China’s overtures arouse unpleasant questions for the U.S. military, which considers Thailand its oldest and truest Asian ally.

“Why do the Chinese want to practice about amphibious landings?” said Ian Storey, Asian military specialist and researcher with Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. “It’s driven by Taiwan. And who’s treaty-bound to come to Taiwan’s defense?”

Such high-level China-Thai war games threaten to leak U.S. military doctrine and erode American influence, according to defense analysts. Worse yet, experts contend, is the chance that Thailand would inadvertently help China train to invade U.S. ally Taiwan, regarded by China as an island of rogue separatists.

So far, Thailand has safeguarded its U.S. friendship by backing off any sweeping Cobra Gold-scale games with the Chinese. The exercises, slated for an unannounced date this year, will not include a coastal assault. What remains is a naval exercise that will likely involve just a few hundred troops.

In recent years, the Thai armed forces have joined Chinese troops for anti-terrorism, naval rescue and mine-clearing drills. Though small in scale, the exercises are adding up to help bring Thailand’s military closer to China’s than any other Southeast Asian country outside Burma, Storey said. Notably, during Thailand’s 2006 coup, when America halted military aid to Thailand, China rushed in to offer $49 million in military credits — twice the amount axed by the U.S., he said.

But no Chinese war games have rivaled Cobra Gold and its 11,500 U.S., Thai and South Korean troops, who practice creeping ashore with rifles, calling in jet strikes, flooding the beach with marines and blistering the coastline with explosives.

Here's what last year's games looked — and sounded — like:

The U.S. is unmatched when it comes to amphibious assault, a capability the People’s Liberation Army is hellbent on improving, analysts say. The threat of Chinese generals soaking up American military tactics through exercises in Thailand is very real, said Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center at conservative think-tank The Heritage Foundation in Washington D.C.

“This is something about which we should have serious conversations with our Thai allies,” Lohman said. “The potential transfer of U.S. military doctrine, technology and techniques is a bigger concern for me than any broader geo-strategic issue.”

A Chinese rendition of Cobra Gold would cause “a lot of unhappiness” within the U.S. military, Storey said. “Chinese-Thai relations are definitely getting much better, but previously, they haven’t put this much emphasis on security affairs. “The U.S. could say, down the road, that if you train with China then we won’t sell you American equipment.”

Thailand, however, remains highly protective of Cobra Gold and its U.S. friendship, said Surachart Bamrungsuk, a military specialist at Chulalongkorn University who also lectures at Thailand’s military academies.

“Yes, the Sino-Thai relationship is getting better,” Surachart said. “But it’s different than the U.S. relationship and much less about security. We won’t risk losing Cobra Gold. It’s too much of a tradition at this point.”

Despite its ambition, the People’s Liberation Army still lacks the American gear and expertise that Thailand now enjoys, Storey said. He noted that a typical Cobra Gold exercise — summoning 12,000 troops and spanning two weeks — dwarfs the largest China-Thai drill: a 2005 naval operation that ended in less than four hours.

As long as Chinese-Thai exercises remain modest, they’re not “anything to be alarmed about,” Lohman said. “But it’s definitely something the U.S. should keep an eye on.”

The scale of Chinese war games in Thailand will probably increase incrementally, Surachart said, testing American patience one exercise at a time. And when this year’s Chinese-Thai games take to the Gulf of Thailand, the U.S. military will likely receive an invitation — but only to watch.