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The Inaugural US-ASEAN Naval Exercises: A Clear Signal to China

Sep 17, 2019

The United States undertook its inaugural joint maritime exercises with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in early-September. While the Pentagon has been regularly conducting naval drills with Southeast Asian countries throughout the decades, this was the first time that all the ten ASEAN member states were in attendance. 

The five-days-long ASEAN-US Maritime Exercise (AUMX) covered a vast and critical area, stretching from the Sattahip naval base in Chonburi province in the Gulf of Thailand to Cape Cà Mau in southern Vietnam in the South China Sea, with pre-drill activities in the archipelagic Southeast Asian nations of Brunei and Singapore. 

The exercises, involving eleven nations, saw the participation of 1,260 personnel, 8 warships, and 4 aircrafts, though Malaysia and Indonesia sent observers instead of major naval assets. Both ASEAN and the Pentagon made it clear that the drills were not directly against any specific country, but instead aimed at enhancing interoperability and confidence-building measures among the participating nations. 

Less than a year ago, the ASEAN and China conducted their own first-ever joint military exercise. By conducting a similar activity with the US, Southeast Asian nations are signaling their strategic autonomy and classic ‘omni-balancing’ approach, namely enmeshing major powers in ASEAN-led multilateral activities towards the establishment of an inclusive regional security architecture. As the late Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew told the Americans, “give the region options besides China”, otherwise more will assume that “China’s rise is inevitable”. 

China’s Naval Diplomacy 

The AUMX is taking place not only within the context of rising Sino-American rivalry as well as maritime tensions in the South China Sea, but also China’s emergence as a regional security provider. 

Since 2018, China’s burgeoning naval forces have conducted at least three major drills with Southeast Asian countries. Last year August, China’s People Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) conducted simulated naval drills with several ASEAN countries in Singapore’s Changi naval base. 

Two months later, Beijing hosted the inaugural China-ASEAN Maritime Exercise in Zhanjiang in southern China’s Guangdong. The days-long exercise saw the participation of six key ASEAN countries, including the Philippines and Thailand, which are American treaty allies. 

The drills covered a wide range of drills, with a focus on non-traditional security threats, but the main goal was military-to-military diplomacy and enhancing trust between Beijing and regional navies. Though there were no full-fledged war games, the occasion served as an opportunity for China to its naval might, deploying the 10,000 ton Junshanhu type 961 replenishment ship,  the 6,000 ton Guangzhou multi-missile destroyer, the Huangshan type 054A-class frigate. 

Earlier this year, the two sides once again pooled their naval forces during the Joint Maritime Drill 2019 in the Chinese port city of Qingdao. The event, which coincided with the commemoration of the People’s Liberation Army’s 70th founding anniversary, saw the participation Commander of the PLAN, Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong, who triumphantly portrayed the exercises as part of China’s plan of  “building a maritime community with a shared future” with neighboring states.   

Reasserting Strategic Autonomy 

ASEAN has generally welcomed China’s contribution to peace and stability in the region. It views Beijing’s expanding naval capacity as a potential force for good, especially for battling non-traditional security threats, as well as humanitarian and disaster-relief operations (HADR), 

At the same time, however, smaller Southeast Asian nations are perturbed by China’s expanding military footprint across the South China Sea. And there is growing concern over China’s increasingly brazen and overbearing diplomatic posturing. 

In particular, core ASEAN nations were dismayed by Beijing’s position during the negotiation of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, where it effectively demanded a veto power over Southeast Asian nations’ prerogative to “hold joint military exercises with countries from outside the region, unless the parties concerned are notified beforehand and express no objection”. 

China’s position, which has been opposed by major regional states, violates the ASEAN’s core commitment to preserving its strategic autonomy after centuries of colonial experience. It’s precisely against this backdrop that one should understand the inaugural joint exercises with the US, which has enjoyed a long history of naval cooperation with key ASEAN members. 

The AUMX drills were jointly overseen by Thailand’s (current ASEAN chair) Vice Admiral Charoenpol Kumrasee, chief-of-staff of the Royal Thai Fleet, and Rear Admiral Kenneth Whitesell, deputy commander of the US Indo-Pacific Fleet. 

The Thai commander made it clear that the exercises weren’t aim at China, but instead “to train the regional navies in delivering humanitarian assistance and mitigating disasters." His American counterpart was equally adamant that the main goal is to enhance “the understanding of how we are going to operate together” rather than against any specific rival or power. 

In many ways, the AUMX represents the culmination of Washington’s decades-long naval engagement with the region, including through the Southeast Asia Cooperation Training (SEACAT) and the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) platforms. In recent years, the Pentagon has stepped up its engagement with not only traditional allies such as the Philippines and Singapore, but also new strategic partners such as Vietnam and Indonesia as well as Malaysia.

In its Indo-Pacific Strategy paper, the Trump administration has made it clear that it’s “prioritizing new relationships” in Southeast Asia, specifically with “key players” such as Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia, which are “central in our efforts to ensure peace and underwrite prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.”

Though they are unlikely to ever become formal allies, the Pentagon believes that they are nonetheless “aligned with the region’s shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific and are focused on maintaining peace, stability, and prosperous economic development in the region.” 

Though the US is realistic about the ASEAN’s reluctance to align against China, it hopes to gradually deepen relations with key regional states as well as legitimize its expanding naval footprint in the South China Sea against China. As for ASEAN, engaging the US is their best way to keep China’s revanchist ambitions at bay and preserving maximum room for strategic maneuver.

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