COLUMN-US and Asian partners walk complex line with military drills

Credit: REUTERS/US MARINES

By Peter Apps

LONDON, Feb 29 (Reuters) - As NATO troops including up to 25,000 Americans continued their largest military exercises since the end of the Cold War in Europe last week, one of America’s most established Asian multinational drills was getting under way in Thailand.

"Cobra Gold" involves almost 10,000 military personnel from the United States, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, South Korea, Japan and others and simulates a range of missions, including amphibious landings, parachute jumps, live firing of ground and aerial weapons and cyber warfare.

On the surface, that might look very similar to the activities NATO members are engaged in as part of their much larger Steadfast Defender drills, which involve almost 100,000 personnel from the Arctic to the Mediterranean.

There is one big difference: while NATO allies are training to fight together if necessary in the event of an external attack on Europe – most likely from Russia – 20 of the nations at the heart of Cobra Gold have no intention of fighting alongside the United States in a war with China if they can avoid it.

"The objective of the exercise of 2024 is to enhance the relations of all participating nations, to enhance the forces’ capability and interoperability ... and adapt to various kinds of threats and crises," said General Thitichai Tiantong, Chief of Joint Staff for Thailand's military, which hosts Cobra Gold alongside the United States.

Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and even Singapore – which houses a U.S. naval facility that Washington would definitely like to use in time of war – are all keen to balance their relationships between Washington and Beijing, as well as other major regional players, without being drawn into any confrontation.

Even the combat elements of the exercise are focused on keeping relationships open and functioning rather than preparing for the kind of regional conflict that could erupt if China invades Taiwan.

Unusually, Chinese military personnel – as well as those from India, a rival to China that is increasingly aligned with Washington in the Pacific and yet still maintains a close relationship with the Kremlin – also joined one part of Cobra Gold focused on humanitarian response.

The Chinese involvement was agreed at a meeting in January in Bangkok between U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, a move to reduce tensions and rebuild strained military-to-military relations.

As well as being increasingly military rivals, the United States and China are also locked in an economic battle for hearts, minds and investment across Southeast Asia.

As of 2022, the last year for which full figures are available, the United States remained the largest investor in capital projects in Southeast Asia, spending just over $74 billion between 2018 and 2022, according to the Financial Times fDi Markets tracker of cross-border investments.

China invested $68.5 billion over the same period. Most analysts expect China to outstrip the United States in regional investment over the coming decade.

China was Thailand’s largest outside investor in 2023 and looks set to hold that position again in 2024, as well as being a major source of military equipment.

U.S.-CHINA RIVALRY

In November last year, China held its own joint exercises with several members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations including Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. According to Chinese state news agency Xinhua, the exercises focus on "counterterrorism and antipiracy".

Compared to the Pentagon, however, China’s People’s Liberation Army is relatively new to hosting international military drills, unlike the United States which has run such manoeuvres since the end of World War II.

Starting in 1982 and now on its 43rd iteration, the U.S. military says Cobra Gold is now the world's longest continuously running international military exercise, now on a larger scale after being scaled back due to the COVID pandemic and U.S. irritation in Thailand following a 2014 coup.

The vast majority of personnel – 6,000 – will be American, with 3,000 from Thailand. More than 30 other countries – including Australia, Britain, Bangladesh, Brunei, Canada, Mongolia, France, Nepal, New Zealand, the Philippines and Vietnam – will participate, with some attending workshops on operational planning and others simply sending observers.

Below the surface, however, the very real international competition in the region is rarely far away.

According to a press release this month from the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, U.S. and Thai Navy divers will cooperate on a "limited recovery mission" relieving weaponry from the U.S.-built Thai patrol ship HTMS Sukhothai, which sank in a storm of the Thai coast in December 2022 with the loss of 75 of its 105 crew.

According to Thai media reports, the ship had been likely to be salvaged by a Chinese company, but those plans have now been put on ice after the U.S. offer. Thai officials rejected claims the cancellation of the Chinese contract was directly linked to the exercise.

Unlike in Europe, where the majority of major exercises have some NATO component – which means they are increasingly focused on the Russian threat – the majority of major drills in Asia partner the United States with one or more countries in the region.

Drills with America’s closest Asian allies – Australia, Japan, South Korea and increasingly the Philippines – tend to be those focusing the most on the kind of maritime, air, drone, missile, space and cyber battles those nations believe they need to be prepared for should war come with China or North Korea.

KEEPING RELATIONSHIPS OPEN

Last year's biennial U.S.-Australian-led Talisman Sabre exercise involved more than 34,000 military personnel across five states and territories of Australia. It included round-the-clock air operations, activating backup airfields and deploying special forces to supposedly contested islands.

That two-week exercise, which concluded in August, was almost immediately followed by the smaller Super Garuda Shield in conjunction with Indonesia – another country seen hedging its bets between the U.S. and China – which involved around 10,000 personnel primarily in disaster relief operations.

Ironically, one of the most critical U.S. military relationships in the region – that with Taiwan – has some of the least joint training. U.S. officials, however, have told U.S. media outlets that just over 100 U.S. personnel are now based on the island providing joint training to Taiwanese troops.

Last year, Japanese media reported the United States and Taiwan were also stepping up joint training of Taiwanese troops in the United States, increasing the number at any one time from several dozen to several hundred, perhaps reaching full-strength battalion numbers of up to 800 soldiers by 2025.

With Taiwan unrecognised diplomatically by most of the world as an independent nation and treated as a rogue province by mainland China, Taiwanese personnel are much less likely to be invited to major joint military drills.

That may gradually shift as worries over a potential Chinese invasion increase, with U.S. officials saying Chinese President Xi Jinping has told his military to be ready to move militarily against the island by 2027.

That is already prompting heightened joint activity among the allies America trusts most – this time with China definitely not invited.

At the start of February, Japanese and U.S. military personnel held their largest ever joint command post exercise, Keen Edge, also including a more limited participation from Australia. Joint planning and exercises with South Korea have also been stepped up in the face of growing threats from the North.

This month has also seen the third set of joint U.S.-Filipino naval exercises in the South China Sea since November, a clear response to mounting tensions between China and the Philippines over the disputed Second Thomas Shoal.

In January, Filipino officials said upcoming April annual Balikatan joint drills with the United States and Australia would be even larger than last year's record 17,600 personnel.

Indonesia media report that authorities in the Batanes archipelago – within 150 km of Taiwan's most outlying islands – had already been in consultation with military authorities over what the exercises might look like.

* Peter Apps is a Reuters columnist writing on defence and security issues. He joined Reuters in 2003, reporting from southern Africa and Sri Lanka and on global defence issues. He is also the founder of a think-tank, the Project for Study of the 21st Century, and, since 2016, has been a Labour Party activist and British Army reservist.

(Editing by Nick Macfie)

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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