On February 21, co-sponsors the United States and Thailand wrapped up the 33rd annual Cobra Gold military exercise. A month earlier, 5,000 U.S. troops from the Marine Corps, Army and Navy descended upon the jungles of rural northern Thailand, joining an ever-growing group of Southeast Asian military counterparts. In recent years, the largest multilateral military exercise held within Asia had some interesting additions. In 2013,Myanmar was invited to send representatives to observe the exercise. This year, the usual suspects – military participants from the United States, Thailand, Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Malaysia – were joined by participants from the Chinese military. Vietnam was also amongst the 20 observer nations.
Cobra Gold is not the only U.S.-led exercise that the Chinese will join for the first time this year. When news broke last year of China accepting the United States’ invitation to the 2014 iteration of the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise, scheduled to take place this summer, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta expressed how China’s inclusion in RIMPAC would serve to further the U.S.’ goal of fostering a “healthy, stable, reliable, continuous and transparent” military-to-military relationship with the Chinese. One of the principal underlying assumptions behind the invitation of the Chinese to U.S.-led multilateral exercises like RIMPAC and Cobra Gold is that the inclusion of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would assuage Chinese suspicion about the U.S.’ motivation behind these exercises and more broadly, U.S. intentions in the region. Unpacking this assumption, in what ways does the gesture of welcoming China to Cobra Gold make headway in countering the sense of ‘strategic distrust’between China and the U.S.? How could the contributions of activities like this be augmented?
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