The U.S. and Thai militaries will pursue joint training exercises this year with “utmost care” due to the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. army chief said in Bangkok on Friday, becoming the first official visitor to the kingdom since pandemic restrictions were eased.
U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. James C. McConville and Gen. Apirat Kongsompong, the Royal Thai Army commander in chief, signed a “Strategic Vision Statement” on the second day of the two-day trip.
McConville, who also met with Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, was tested for COVID-19 upon arriving Thursday, and wore a face mask during meetings with his hosts.
“Our alliance has a long and productive history, and now we are taking on 21st century challenges together,” McConville said in a post on the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok’s website.
“Our two nations typically have hundreds of military trainings and events each year, and we are working in unison with the Royal Thai Government to ensure that all of our training scenarios will be done with the utmost care with regard to the pandemic.”
Neither government released the text of the Strategic Vision Statement.
The U.S. delegation was the first to visit Thailand since lockdown measures were instituted to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, which has infected 12.3 million and killed more than 556,000 people worldwide, according to disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.
The United States is the worst-hit country, with more than 3.1 million infections, while Thailand has largely controlled the pandemic and has a cumulative caseload of 3,202.
The U.S. Embassy statement explained that the agreement signed Friday focuses on “stability, prosperity and sustainability in the Indo-Pacific region in support of an inclusive and rules-based international order.”
A Thai Army news release described it as an effort “to enhance military co-operation between the two nations to reach a high level of progress.”
The co-operation is on display each year during Cobra Gold, the region’s largest multi-nation training exercises hosted by Thailand.
Beginning in late February this year, Thailand and the U.S. co-hosted 27 countries for the 10-day exercise that combined combat training with humanitarian exercises.
Meeting with Prayuth
Thai government spokeswoman Narumon Pinyosinwat told reporters that the Friday meeting between Prayuth and McConville was “a confirmation of close ties between the two countries which [have] continued for many years, especially between the two armies which have many joint operations.”
Both countries have a common aim to “support security and mutual benefits in strengthening stability, freedom, openness and sustainability of the Indo-Pacific region,” she said.
Thailand is America’s oldest ally in Southeast Asia , where the United States is struggling to compete with China’s growing influence. Bilateral relations date back more than 200 years to 1818.
But the two nations are drifting apart strategically, with Thailand becoming more authoritarian and “increasingly siding with Beijing over Washington on key issues,” Southeast Asia security analyst Zachary Abuza wrote earlier this year in War on the Rocks, an online journal on security issues.
Apirat “defended” McConville’s visit to reporters in Bangkok on Thursday, including by saying that the United States had not asked to establish a military base in the kingdom, according to The Bangkok Post.
“Don’t stir up issues that might create conflict in the region,” the army chief reportedly said.
Prayuth took power in 2014 after the military junta he led overthrew the elected government of then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. During that period, bilateral ties cooled slightly.
Six months after a 2019 general election, in which Prayuth retained power, he and American Secretary of Defense Mark Esper signed a “Joint Vision Statement” which strengthened the “special relationship,” according to a joint statement at the time.
“The U.S. Department of Defense and the Ministry of Defense of the Kingdom of Thailand reaffirm the importance of the U.S.-Thailand defense treaty alliance for the 21st century. We note that defense ties complement all elements of our much broader relationship, including strong diplomatic, economic, and cultural ties,” the statement said.
“We are committed to strengthening all of these important partnerships in order to achieve greater peace in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond,” it added.