Asean steers between two powers with joint US military exercise in South China Sea

Asean’s first joint exercise with the US, which wrapped up on Friday, is the latest effort by the Asian bloc to rebalance its military engagement with Beijing and Washington, while avoiding being seen to tilt towards either of the two powers in the region, analysts said.

The five-day exercise was an opportunity for the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to parade their military presence in the disputed South China Sea alongside the superpower as both the US and China vie to curb each other’s influence in the region.

The exercise, led by the US and Thailand, involved eight warships, four aircraft and more than 1,000 personnel. Participants also included Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam.

Asean held a similar joint exercise with China in October – also the first of its kind – with more than 1,200 personnel from China taking part. Experts said the two exercises were different in their nature as well as their operational practicality.

The joint naval exercise between the US and Asean gets under way at the Sattahip naval base in Thailand. Photo: Kyodo
The joint naval exercise between the US and Asean gets under way at the Sattahip naval base in Thailand. Photo: Kyodo

Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy, a visiting fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the key objectives of both exercises was to enhance understanding and the skills needed to deal with emerging maritime security threats together.

“[But] the China-Asean maritime exercise was quite limited in scope involving search and rescue and high availability disaster recovery activities,” he said. "[By contrast,] the US-Asean exercise aims to boost situational awareness and interoperability.”

An increased interoperability with the US would allow the Southeast Asian bloc to enhance its operational capability in the South China Sea – in its most encompassing form – by allowing different forces to operate together in the disputed region.

The drills took place as Washington vowed to maintain its military engagement in the region amid escalating tensions between Beijing and some Asean states – including Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines – over sovereignty of the South China Sea.

These countries are in a bitter dispute over Beijing’s “nine-dash line” claim on what it says are its historic rights in the South China Sea. Washington is not a claimant, but regards the area as part of its Indo-Pacific strategy to contain China’s military expansion in the Pacific and Indian oceans.

Sean King, senior vice-president at political strategy firm Park Strategies, said two of the Asean participants – the Philippines and Thailand – were key allies of the US.

“Beijing has no formal allies among the group,” King said, while also pointing out that the level of operational arrangements and exchange of military information would have been very different in each of the two joint exercises.

In contrast, the US has alliances with many Pacific countries – including Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and Australia.

“Another clear difference is that while Beijing’s militarising the South China Sea, Asean member states know [the US] has no designs on any of their claimed waters. I think we’re there to reassure the region and to remind Beijing that [Washington] is still there,” King said.

China and US court Asean members to strengthen alliances

Collin Koh, a researcher of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said Southeast Asian nations were expanding their defence cooperation with the US because their military strength paled in comparison with China’s.

“This persistent military power asymmetry necessitates continued defence and security engagements with external powers such as the US. For that matter, we also see Southeast Asian countries maintaining and enhancing defence and security engagements with other external powers, such as Australia and Japan, for example,” Koh said.

China has built artificial islands, reclaimed land and installed airstrips and military equipment in the disputed waters, leading to accusations that it is militarising the sensitive area.

The US last month sent its nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan to the Philippines, not only to show its commitment to an ally, but also to issue a reminder of its presence in the region with a display of military might aimed at checking China’s expansion in the South China Sea.

US flexes muscle in South China Sea with nuclear carrier port call

Against this backdrop of complex power plays, experts agree that political motives were behind the joint drill with the Asean countries.

“Political motives dominate in both cases,” said Zhang Baohui, a security analyst at Lingnan University.

“Beijing wants to build better strategic trust with its neighbours to downplay their concerns for China's rise … The US wants to tighten security cooperation with Asean countries to woo them away from China. So the two naval exercises are reflections of strategic competition between China and the US.”

But with Asean not wanting to be seen leaning towards the US or China, the geopolitical impact of the joint drills in the region may be limited, Zhang said.

“The military significance will be limited as Asean countries fundamentally do not want to choose sides. Most of the countries in the US-Asean exercise have very good relations with China.

“Asean is sandwiched between China and the US. Its member states want to maintain good relations with both. China is their biggest economic partner, while the US remains a key security provider. This is the quagmire facing all countries in the world,” he said.

Chaturvedy agreed, saying Asean would be looking for pragmatism – not obligations or loyalty – amid the intensifying US-China rivalry.

“Due to complex diversity among Asean member states in terms of their national interests and priorities, it has become more challenging to strike a balance with regional interests,” he said.

“This dichotomy of national versus regional interests is likely to grow. However, pragmatism among some Asean leaders will navigate through these complex geopolitical churnings.”

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