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Beijing wants to play war in Thailand. Should the Pentagon be worried?
“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.