WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States will conduct live-fire training at an upcoming military exercise in Thailand despite saying it would be focusing the drills on nonlethal security cooperation, a U.S. official said Tuesday.
The U.S. suspended military aid to its longtime ally in response to a coup last May. The top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, Daniel Russel, roiled the junta last week by calling for an end to martial law and saying the recent impeachment of a former prime minister could be politically motivated.
But as Washington looks to sustain its foreign policy "pivot" to Asia, it is pressing ahead with the annual Cobra Gold exercise in Thailand this month. It is one of the world's largest, multilateral military exercises, with nearly 30 nations taking part. It has been held in Thailand since 1982.
In an interview last week with a Thai broadcaster, Russel said that in the aftermath of the coup, the U.S. was scaling down and refocusing the exercise on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. He said it was important that militaries in the region be able to coordinate quickly in case of typhoons or tsunamis.
The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok said a large-scale, live-fire exercise and an amphibious landing have been scrapped.
However, in response to an inquiry from The Associated Press, embassy spokeswoman Melissa Sweeney said that Cobra Gold "will maintain some live-fire training traditionally associated with the overall exercise, designed to promote interoperability."
The U.S. reluctance to relocate and entirely reorganize plans for the exercise — at least one U.S. lawmaker had suggested it be shifted to Australia — underscores Washington's desire to sustain its ties with Thailand, a close security partner since the Vietnam War.
It is not just turbulence in diplomatic relations that have complicated this year's edition of the exercise.
A U.S. navy container ship carrying equipment for Cobra Gold ran aground several miles off the coast of Okinawa, Japan, on Jan. 22, U.S. officials said.
Sweeney said that has required additional adjustments to planning for the exercise, but did not give details.
Cdr. Ron Flanders, a spokesman for U.S. Naval Forces Japan, said the vessel, the USNS Sgt. Matej Kocak, was successfully refloated Tuesday night off the reef where it ran aground and is now in port at White Beach Naval Facility in Okinawa.