By Jutarat Skulpichetrat
CHONBURI, Thailand (Reuters) - The most senior U.S. officer to visit Thailand since a 2014 coup emphasized the importance of restoring democracy on Tuesday as he launched the annual Cobra Gold military exercise.
The United States scaled down its presence at Asia's largest annual multinational military exercise as one of the former U.S. administration's steps to pressure the junta.
With ties improving even before President Donald Trump took office, activists had voiced concern that Washington would put less focus on democratic change in a region where it faces an increasingly forceful China.
"We look forward to Thailand's re-emergence as a flourishing democracy because we need Thailand to be a strong and stable partner," said Admiral Harry Harris, head of U.S. Pacific Command, which covers about half the earth's surface.
"We need Thailand to get back to being the regional and global leader that it always has been."
Harris will later meet junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha in Bangkok.
Harris's attendance was planned before the inauguration of Trump, whose policy moves on Asia are closely watched after signals of potential confrontation with China over trade and territory.
In the face of the U.S. measures to push for democracy, Thailand has strengthened military coorperation with China.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said the change in relations with Thailand marked a worrisome shift given the military's grip on power and the arrests of activists and opponents of army rule.
"It appears Pentagon policymakers are intent on using Cobra Gold as a way to reboot U.S. military engagement with their Thai counterparts," wrote John Sifton of the advocacy group in an opinion piece that first appeared in the Washington Post.
The Thai junta held a referendum last year on a constitution to allow a general election. It is expected next year.
On Tuesday, the military government was also due to start meetings with political groups on national reconciliation ahead of the election. Parties have welcomed the idea, but questioned whether the generals can be fair.
Thailand has hosted the Cobra Gold war games since they began in 1982. This year's event will be attended by more than 8,300 personnel from 29 countries. Among them will be about 3,600 from the United States.
(Editing by Matthew Tostevin)