U.S. Pentagon is "Not a Declining Power"
U.S. Pentagon is "Not a Declining Power"
By Richard S. Ehrlich
BANGKOK, Thailand -- U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford has arrived in Bangkok after visiting Australia, emphasizing the U.S. is "not a declining power" and will improve military relations with Thailand's armed forces which seized control in a 2014 coup.
He met on February 7 Thailand's coup-installed Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, Gen. Dunford's counterpart Armed Forces Supreme Commander Gen. Thanchaiyan Srisuwan, and Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwon.
Mr. Prawit is currently under investigation by the junta's National Anti-Corruption Commission for possession of up to 25 expensive wristwatches worth $1.24 million but is a lifetime colleague of the prime minister and not expected to suffer punishment.
He denied wrongdoing, offered to resign, and said the timepieces were "loaned" to him by friends, including a wealthy man who died one year ago.
Critics did not believe that explanation and said even if it were true, expensive loans should be illegal because it could result in a conflict of interest.
Gen. Dunford and Mr. Prawit discussed "security in the Asia-Pacific, military ties" and other issues, according to a Thai government report.
Gen. Dunford's arrival in Bangkok on February 6 is "advancing U.S.-Thailand military-to-military relations," the U.S. Defense Department said.
"A military coup in 2014 canceled any high-level contacts between the two militaries," the department said.
"The contacts have been re-energized now that the Thai government has scheduled free elections later this year."
Prime Minister Prayuth, who led the coup, has not confirmed a date for elections amid recent moves by his junta to postpone the polls to 2019, which has sparked ongoing complaints by pro-democracy activists, politicians and local media.
Gen. Dunford's visit comes just before the Pentagon's massive February 13-23 multinational military Exercise Cobra Gold 2018.
"Approximately 6,800 U.S. personnel directly participating both ashore and afloat [join] up to 30 nations either directly participating in or observing" Cobra Gold 18 in scattered locations across Thailand, said the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok.
The 37th iteration of the annual exercise includes about 4,000 troops from co-host Thailand, a U.S. treaty ally.
Forces from Singapore, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and Malaysia are arriving along with a small number of soldiers from China and India.
Australia, Canada, Bangladesh and Nepal are among attendees.
"You cannot dispute the facts from a security perspective about U.S. presence in the Pacific, U.S. commitment in the Pacific and U.S. capability in the Pacific," Gen. Dunford said.
"Certainly the physical evidence from a military dimension reflects that we are not a declining power," he said.
"If someone is trying to undermine the United States politically, diplomatically and from a security perspective, the first target would be our network of allies and partners," Gen. Dunford said in a Defense Department media report.
"When you see the message that the United States is a declining power, it's a deliberate effort to undermine the credibility of our alliances and relationships in the region," he said.
"No matter how you rack and stack it...there is no other nation that has the military capability that we have in the Pacific."
Thailand has no territorial claims in the nearby disputed South China Sea, but Bangkok offers to play a neutral diplomatic role between the U.S. and its Southeast Asian partners who are confronting China's increasing domination of those strategic waters.
The U.S. and China are diplomatic, economic and military friends with Thailand, and the two larger nations are often perceived as competing for Bangkok's loyalty.
For example, the U.S. has been training Thailand's navy in submarine warfare to guard its two coasts which border the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea.
China is selling three submarines to Thailand to boost the fragile navy.
Thailand's dual coastlines allow access to reach the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.
"It is important to maintain relations with Thailand, because they have outstanding visibility in the maritime domain in a critical part of the world," Gen. Dunford said, according to the Defense Department.
"Now, the reason I have military-to-military relations with an ally is to develop interoperability and to be prepared to fight together, should that be required."
Before arriving in Thailand, Gen. Dunford was in Australia where he met on Saturday to February 3-5 with Air Chief Marshal Mark D. Binskin, chief of the Australian Defense Force.
On February 6, Gen. Dunford visited a U.S. Marine Rotational Force assigned to Royal Australian Air Force Base Darwin.
The U.S. and Australia are increasing "collaboration in counter-terrorism efforts and regional capacity-building," U.S. officials said, according to the department.
Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978 and winner of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "'Hello My Big Big Honey!' Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews," "60 Stories of Royal Lineage," and "Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946." Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the chapter "Ceremonies and Regalia" in a book published in English and Thai titled, "King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective." Mr. Ehrlich's newest book, "Sheila Carfenders, Doctor Mask & President Akimbo" focuses on an abusive San Francisco psychiatrist who abducts a female patient to Asia.
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