Today’s military coup in Thailand presents a dilemma for the United States.
Thailand is a major non-NATO ally, on par with Egypt, the Philippines and Israel. It hosts Cobra Gold, one of the world’s largest annual military exercises and a lynchpin of U.S.-led regional military cooperation. The Thai and U.S. governments conduct over 40 other joint military exercises each year.
The Thai government also receives excess defence articles, or military equipment that the U.S. no longer wants. In 2012, Thailand used its EDA procurement abilities to obtain 75 utility trucks from the U.S. military, several M930 military-grade dump trucks, and five Pratt and Whitney-made aircraft engines.
As this chart from a Federation of American Scientists report on U.S. Thai relations demonstrates, the U.S. provides several million dollars of various forms of military assistance to Thailand each year.
This is a small fraction of the hundreds of millions or even billions in assistance that other U.S. allies receive. But the U.S. gets a notable strategic dividend in return for its cooperation.
As a member of the broader U.S.-led security alliance in Asia, Thailand is important to the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia,” a shift in U.S. diplomacy, defence policy, and broader strategy in anticipation of the increasing importance of China, India, and other emerging Pacific nations. Military aid could help directly counter Chinese influence in the country.
The U.S.’s own laws, specifically Section 508 of the Foreign Assistance Act, prevent it from providing military aid to a government that takes power from the previous “duly elected” leadership by coup. After Thailand’s 2006 coup, the U.S. suspended most military aid while maintaining other forms of assistance and keeping up its high-level relationship with Thai officials — a response widely viewed as “relatively mild.” The 2007 edition of Cobra Gold went through as planned, for instance.
The U.S. faced a similarly delicate situation when the Egyptian military helped remove Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi from the country’s presidency in June of 2013. The U.S. officials pointedly refrained from using the word “coup” to describe events in Cairo. But the U.S. still withheld significant amounts of aid, withdrawing loan guarantees and halting scheduled transfers of Apache helicopters and F-16s.
Over the next few days, officials at the Defence and State departments will have to decide whether Thailand is now ineligible for U.S. military aid — and how to manage the U.S.’s strategic interests in the country light of its legal obligation not to support military putschists.
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