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The largest U.S. war games in Asia kicked off today in Thailand.
Called Cobra Gold, it's a big deal to the U.S. military and Thailand, among America's oldest allies in the Pacific region.
Thailand and America are old pals, having forged an anti-communist alliance in the Vietnam War days. Even after the war ended, the CIA helped train Thai commandos to chase down communists camped out in dense jungles. These days, during Cobra Gold, U.S. troops get a chance to train in Southeast Asian terrain while the Thais get access to America's latest gear and equipment.
Now, with scandal again plaguing Thailand's military, British weekly The Economist has editorialized that Obama should temporarily withdraw the war games.
Why? The Thai military is accused of detaining sea-faring Burmese refugees and pushing them back into the ocean with dismantled ships. (Here's my story on the fiasco.) And threatening to canceling Cobra Gold, The Economist says, will injure Thai generals' pride and push the military to behave.
But I seriously doubt this will happen.
Cobra Gold is a well-entrenched event for both militaries. The games legitimize Thailand's military — and reaffirm a Thai-U.S. bond that's even more crucial as neighboring China grows militarily stronger. (Thailand, historically savvy at playing sides, has held exercises with China as well.)
The kingdom's 2006 military coup forced the U.S. — by law — to briefly withdraw $24 million in military aid to Thailand. But the coup didn't kill Cobra Gold. The exercise went on as usual.
All that valuable training aside, Cobra Gold is huge diplomatically. I recently visited a Thai army compound where a team of U.S. military personnel works year-round to coordinate Cobra Gold and other exercises. The room was buzzing with high-ranking U.S. officers — in polo shirts instead of uniforms, per guidelines — and a few uniformed Thai officers hunched over a laptops and pecking changes into spreadsheets.
Cobra Gold is one of the strongest pillars supporting U.S.-Thai relations. The refugee scandal may produce strongly worded letters from the United Nations and U.S. diplomats.
But it'll take much more than that knock out Cobra Gold.