All 10 ASEAN states will begin a joint military exercise Tuesday in Indonesia, the first time such an event will involve only the bloc’s members even as Beijing asserts its sweeping claims in the disputed South China Sea.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has held joint drills with other countries, including the United States and China, but this ASEAN-only exercise is a sign of growing cooperation and unity on maritime security, analysts told BenarNews, an online news agency affiliated with Radio Free Asia.
The 10 ASEAN members will be joined by prospective 11th member, Timor Leste, during the five-day non-combat exercise. Officially called ASEAN Solidarity Exercise, it will take place around Batam and Natuna Islands near the South China Sea, Lt. Col. Abidin Tobba, media coordinator for the event, told BenarNews on Monday.
“Eleven countries and hundreds of personnel will take part in the exercise,” including Myanmar, Abidin said without specifying why it was participating.
Myanmar’s military junta has been persona non grata at ASEAN meetings because of its failure to implement a regional peace plan agreed two months after the army seized power from an elected government in February 2021.
The drills will include joint maritime patrols, medical evacuation, search and rescue and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in simulated affected areas, the Indonesian military said.
Enhancing regional stability
They are expected to enhance regional stability and “boost our countries’ economy,” according to Indonesia’s military commander, Adm. Yudo Margono, who proposed the ASEAN exercise during a meeting of the bloc’s defense forces chiefs in Bali in June.
Indonesia is this year’s holder of the rotating ASEAN chairmanship.
The exercise comes three weeks after Beijing released a new map including Taiwan and practically the entire South China Sea. But Southeast Asian countries and Taiwan rejected the map.
China claims almost all of the South China Sea, including waters within the exclusive economic zones of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, which are ASEAN members, and Taiwan. Indonesia is not a claimant in the dispute, but has repeatedly protested against Chinese fishing boats and coast guard vessels entering its waters near the Natuna Islands.
A U.N. arbitration court in 2016 ruled that China’s nine-dash line, a boundary used by Beijing on Chinese maps to illustrate its claim, was invalid. But Beijing has rejected the ruling and insisted it has jurisdiction over all areas within the dashed line.
In the latest incident, Chinese ships sailed uncomfortably close to and hemmed in a Philippine Coast Guard ship as it escorted civilian supply boats Manila’s military outpost in Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal.
A BenarNews correspondent and other reporters, who were given special permission to travel aboard two Philippine Coast guard Ships for a resupply mission, witnessed the tense moments at sea.
ASEAN members Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Singapore have no connection to the dispute but are participating in the exercise because it is valuable and sends a message to the superpowers, said Vinsensio Dugis, head of the ASEAN Studies Center at Airlangga University in Surabaya.
“Not all are involved in the South China Sea dispute, but this [exercise] shows that even those who do not have direct claims are also concerned about this issue,” he told BenarNews.
He said the exercise also signals that ASEAN does not want to be seen as siding with either China or the United States, which have been engaged in a strategic rivalry in the Indo-Pacific region.
However, the South China Sea issue has caused conflict within ASEAN before, including, media reports said, on the location of the joint exercise.
Cambodia and Myanmar, which have strong ties to China, had initially not confirmed participation in the exercise when it was announced in June.
Some media reports said Cambodia had opposed the earlier planned location in the North Natuna Sea, which lies within Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) but parts of which China claims.
Later in June, Indonesia changed the ASEAN exercise location to Batam near Singapore and the waters of South Natuna, citing their suitability for non-combat drills such as joint maritime patrols, medical evacuation and disaster relief.
Indonesia renamed the southern reaches of the South China Sea the North Natuna Sea in 2017 to emphasize its sovereignty over those waters, which encompass natural gas fields. Indonesia, as well as Malaysia and Vietnam have accused China of disrupting their oil and gas exploration activities with frequent incursions by China Coast Guard and maritime militia ships.
The U.S., which is not a South China Sea claimant but is in a defense treaty with ASEAN member Philippines, has challenged China’s claims by conducting “freedom of navigation” operations in the waterway.
And with Beijing renewing its warning about invading U.S. ally Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province, the strife between the two superpowers has made Southeast Asia a geopolitical tinderbox, analysts have said.
ASEAN’s decision to hold this members-only exercise is an effort to maintain regional stability amid this superpower rivalry, analysts said.
The intention of the exercise is to “show joint agency, regardless of the contention and rivalry between great powers,” Muhammad Waffaa Kharisma, a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Jakarta, told BenarNews.
“It still has high value because it practically addresses actual needs such as disaster response, search and rescue, etc. that have been overshadowed by the U.S.-China relations and high politics issues,” he said.
BenarNews is an online news outlet affiliated with Radio Free Asia.