Capt. Phadungdet Porkachang, or “Captain Po” as American troops call him, is a company commander leading 130 Royal Thai Army troops.
He and his men recently trained alongside members of the 25th Infantry Division’s 2nd Infantry Brigade as part of Exercise Lightning Forge in the hills overlooking Oahu’s North Shore. Many of the Thai and American troops wear patches and insignia of the other army as they train together.
America has a long history of cooperation with Thailand, but lately China has attempted to woo Thailand with increasing investment and potential infrastructure projects. The U.S. military is keen to maintain its standing with Thailand and other Indo-Pacific countries, and Hawaii-based troops have been at the forefront of the Pentagon’s efforts.
“This is a lifetime experience visiting Hawaii, the most famous tourism state in the U.S., and to, like, get locked up in a camp and to have a chance to see a wide view of the cool beach through my night vision goggles,” Porkachang joked with dead pan delivery as American troops snickered. Due to COVID-19, they were all kept in a “training bubble.”
The U.S. military has lately shifted its training away from the single-minded focus on counterinsurgency that has defined America’s wars since 9/11 to fighting what it calls “near peer” adversaries. Though no one at the exercise says it explicitly, in the Pacific that peer is China.
“Thailand, like most other nations across the Indo-Pacific, is caught between the two powers,” said Jeremiah Lumbaca, a former Green Beret and an associate professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Center for Security Studies in Waikiki. “There was a time when the U.S. was the clear, singular partner of choice for the Thais. Things have changed.”
When Porkachang and his men arrived on Oahu it was a continuation of a long series of training exchanges between the 25th Infantry and the Royal Thai Army that had been meticulously planned since last year. It’s part of the U.S. Army’s Pacific Pathways program, which encourages joint training between units.
The combat portion of Lightning Forge wrapped up in late July and the Thais are now on their way home. But as part of Pacific Pathways, Porkachang and his men will join the 2nd Brigade again this fall as it flies to the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana to renew its certification to deploy.
Thailand is the United States’ oldest treaty ally in the Pacific, dating back to the Treaty on Amity and Commerce in 1833.
Both the U.S. military and intelligence agencies have extensively used airbases and ports in Thailand to conduct operations for decades. Thai troops have also frequently deployed in support of American interventions, sending troops to Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
During the 1980s U.S. and Thai troops began holding Exercise Cobra Gold in Thailand. The annual event is now the largest military exercise in Southeast Asia. In 2020 troops from 29 countries attended.
In 2014 the Chinese military began attending both Cobra Gold and RIMPAC for the first time. Chinese troops’ participation was limited to humanitarian crisis training and some observation of training, but it was an acknowledgment of China’s undeniable status as a world power.
Beijing has in recent years more assertively projected its military power, with new bases as far away as the Horn of Africa. But much of China’s growth as a world power has been through its economic power. Beijing has invested heavily in Southeast Asia, and has ambitious plans for Thailand as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, sometimes called the “New Silk Road.”
Under the plan Thailand would be the site of a high speed railroad connected to China, as well as the Kra Canal — potentially the largest canal in southeast Asia — which would give both Chinese merchant and military vessels a shortcut to the Indian Ocean. Some analysts believe Beijing would also try to use the latter to exert control over maritime movements in the Indo-Pacific region.
“China has a long history of influence throughout Asia,” said Lumbaca. “But the (Chinese Communist Party’s) attempts today at regional and global hegemony are like nothing the world has seen before.”
Beijing has used state owned firms, media outlets and its intelligence agencies in what many American officials argue is a tightly coordinated campaign to extend its influence. For instance, Chinese Merchant Ships and fishing vessels often double as members of the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia, sometimes staking out territory and intimidating other fisherman and vessels.
While some American policymakers have spoken of a need to “contain China,” Lumbaca said that containment is likely neither realistic nor advantageous. “China’s political and economic stature will only continue to rise. The Chinese GDP is projected to overtake the U.S. as early as 2030,” said Lumbaca.
“The U.S. should encourage — as it does with Thailand — regional cooperation to maintain free and open seaways, transparent infrastructure financing practices, unimpeded commerce, and the peaceful resolution of disputes,” Lumbaca said, adding that residents of Hawaii and other Pacific Islands — which often depend on maritime trade routes — should be wary of Chinese efforts to control them.
Last month Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with China’s top diplomat Yang Yiechi in Honolulu. The meeting wasn’t announced publicly in advance, and the two discussed Hong Kong, pandemic response and tensions at sea.
Last week Pompeo rejected Beijing’s claims to resources and trade routes in the South China Sea calling them, “completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them.”
While many Thai leaders continue pushing for The Belt and Road Initiative projects in the country, others have doubts. Lumbaca argues that across Southeast Asia, many leaders are “beginning to read the fine print on CCP proposals and realizing these instruments are a recipe for debt diplomacy and exploitation.”
The U.S. increased its presence at Cobra Gold this year, sending 5,500 troops in February. When the exercise wrapped up on March 6 about 1,300 Hawaii-based soldiers remained in Thailand to continue with Hanuman Guardian, another exercise that Thai and U.S. troops were holding concurrently.
Maj. Tania Donovan, a 25th Infantry Division spokeswoman, said that soldiers wouldn’t have typically stayed behind in previous years, but that this iteration of Pacific Pathways was intended to maximize interaction between the Hawaii-based division and Thai troops. Participating in both exercises simultaneously gave them a unique opportunity.
The soldiers were scheduled to stay until the end of May. But on March 11 the WHO declared a global pandemic. Shortly after the Pentagon abruptly suspended several planned deployments, while thousands of troops already abroad had their deployments indefinitely extended.
The 25th Infantry’s deployment to Thailand was cut short. Soldiers quarantined in Thailand before boarding their return flights in mid April and again after landing on Oahu, reporting zero cases of COVID-19 at the end of quarantine.
The pandemic threw global alliances into uncertainty, but as Porkachang’s company arrived in Hawaii it seemed to mean that the relationship remained strong.
“I think we’re doing a better job of kind of vocalizing the activities that we’re doing with our partners in the Pacific,” said Capt. Matthew Brown, a member of the newly formed 5th Security Force Assistance Brigade — or SFAB — at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State.
Brown was a rifle company commander at the 25th Infantry before leaving Hawaii to join the SFAB earlier this year. He leads one 12-man team in the unit and the Army plans to deploy more SFAB teams widely across the IndoPacific in the next fiscal year.
The new unit’s mission is to provide advisers to allied military units and ensure they work effectively with American forces, overcoming cultural and communication barriers. Brown, who said he sees Porkachang as a perfectly effective leader, said he sees his job as “assisting the Thais in meeting some of those U.S. specific hurdles.”
Porkachang said that having Brown’s team embedded with his company “completely destroyed that boundary” between U.S. and Thai troops. But Col. Neal Mayo, commander of the 2nd Brigade, noted that he believed Porkachang’s own experience and education deserve some credit.
“He’s being humble right now,” said Mayo. “He understands English and communicates English far better than some of us who were born speaking it, frankly.”
Usually when the U.S. military hosts foreign troops, planners make an effort to include cultural events and trips to landmarks into the experience for their guests and encourage bonding. But the pandemic has made much of that unfeasible. But Brown and Porkachang’s troops are still finding ways to bond.
“All those of us that came into the exercise from outside of Hawaii are all in the same area on Schofield Barracks to make sure that we maintain that training bubble,” said Brown. “So we get to have the interactions, we still get the opportunity to go eat and interact kind of in the same space, though not necessarily right across the table.”
So far Thailand has had 3,250 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 58 deaths. Porkachang and his men returned to Thailand this week quarantining in a hotel, but 11 of them were taken to a hospital for further examination for flu-like symptoms. They’ll likely go through more rounds of quarantine when they return to the U.S. to join their American comrades in Louisiana this fall.
Porkachang joked that he may get a chance to come to Hawaii again “in the far future, maybe if I get promoted to like colonel and I get a lot of money.”
Though Porkachang may have missed out on big parts of the Hawaii experience, he still feels a sort of connection to Hawaii, if even from a distance, because of the pandemic rather than in spite of it.
“This (pandemic) is a lifetime experience for everyone, including me,” he said.
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.