Head of US Pacific Command urges democracy in Thailand
Head of U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Harry B. Harris, stands with troops participating in the opening ceremony of the Cobra Gold Thai-US military exercise on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017 in Sattahip, Thailand. Harris is the highest-ranking U.S. official to attend the annual exercise this year since Thailand’s 2014 coup in an American bid to strengthen relations. (AP Photo/Dake Kang)
SATTAHIP, Thailand — The highest-ranking U.S. military official to visit Thailand since a 2014 coup urged the country to restore democracy, saying Tuesday that America needs ‘a strong and stable ally’ in Southeast Asia.
Adm. Harry B. Harris, the head of the U.S. Pacific Command, spoke at the start of the annual Cobra Gold joint military exercises, the largest in the Asia-Pacific region.
The U.S. is vying with an increasingly powerful China for influence in Asia.
‘We look forward to Thailand’s reemergence as a flourishing democracy because we need Thailand as a strong and stable ally,’ Harris said. ‘We need Thailand to get back to being the regional and global leader that it always has been.’
Twenty-nine countries, including China, India and Malaysia, are participating in or observing the exercises.
Cobra Gold comes at a time of uncertainty for Thailand’s relations with the U.S., China and Russia. In the past few years, the Thai army has bought dozens of Chinese tanks and Russian helicopters to replace outdated American equipment. Last year, the army announced it would buy three Chinese submarines in a deal worth about $1 billion.
Thailand, for decades a stalwart American ally, saw relations with the U.S. cool after its military overthrew a democratically elected government in 2014. In response to the coup, the U.S. froze millions in military aid.
Still, ties with the U.S. began to improve before the Obama administration ended.
‘It’s like a balancing scale,’ said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University and an adviser to Thailand’s defense minister. ‘Thailand is a small country between superpowers, and it has to balance to make sure the scale doesn’t tip too much in one way.’