The first ASEAN joint military exercise of 2023 has taken place in the North Natuna Sea, the southernmost waters of the South China Sea, off the coast of Indonesia. The exercise did not involve any combat operations training and focused on maritime security, disaster response, and rescue operations.
The exercise involved all 10 ASEAN member states, which are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. In addition, Timor-Leste, which recently applied to join the Southeast Asian bloc, also participated in the exercise. This is the first joint military drill that ASEAN has conducted on its own, without any external partners. The purpose of the exercise was to strengthen “ASEAN centrality” and demonstrate the bloc’s unity and solidarity in the face of rising tensions and challenges in the region.
The ASEAN joint military exercise in the South China Sea is a way of upholding ASEAN’s AIOP. The AIOP is a document that outlines ASEAN’s vision and principles for promoting peace, stability, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region, which encompasses both the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean regions. The AIOP identifies four key areas of cooperation: maritime cooperation, connectivity, sustainable development, and economic cooperation.
The ASEAN joint military exercise is aligned with the first area of maritime cooperation, which aims to enhance maritime security, safety, and freedom of navigation and overflight, as well as to address common challenges such as piracy, terrorism, illegal fishing, marine pollution, and climate change. The exercise has focused on maritime security, disaster response, and rescue operations, which are essential for ensuring the safety and well-being of the people and the environment in the region. This shows ASEAN’s openness, inclusivity, and willingness to engage with external partners on common interests and challenges.
The ASEAN joint military exercise is also consistent with the second area of connectivity, which aims to enhance physical, institutional, and people-to-people connectivity among ASEAN member states and with other regions. The exercise would enhance the interoperability and coordination among the ASEAN armed forces and foster mutual trust and confidence among them. The exercise will also strengthen the existing ASEAN-led mechanisms and platforms for security cooperation, such as ADMM-Plus and the EAMF.
The ASEAN joint military exercise is also supportive of the third area of sustainable development, which aims to promote social development and environmental protection. The exercise will enhance the capacity and readiness of the ASEAN armed forces to respond to natural disasters and humanitarian crises in the region, which are becoming more frequent and severe due to climate change.
The ASEAN joint military exercise is also relevant to the fourth area of economic cooperation, which aims to promote trade, investment, innovation, and the digital economy among ASEAN member states. The exercise will contribute to maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea, which is a vital sea lane for global trade. The exercise will also create opportunities for economic collaboration among the participants in areas such as the defense industry, maritime infrastructure, logistics, tourism, and education.
The ASEAN joint military exercise in the South China Sea is a message to China that the Southeast Asian countries are united and determined to uphold their sovereignty and rights in the disputed waters. The rising tensions and challenges in the South China Sea, where China has been asserting its claims and conducting unilateral actions that violate the sovereignty and rights of other claimant states, such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei, these actions include the creation and militarization of artificial islands, the imposition of a fishing ban, oil exploration activities, and the enactment of a new Coast Guard law that authorizes the use of force.
ASEAN has been calling for the peaceful resolution of disputes by international law, especially the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the early conclusion of an effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
Also, transnational crimes and non-traditional threats have affected the security and well-being of the people in the region, such as piracy, terrorism, insurgency, human trafficking, undocumented migration, illegal fishing, environmental degradation, climate change, natural disasters, and pandemics. ASEAN has been enhancing its cooperation and coordination on these issues through various mechanisms and initiatives, such as the ASEAN Centre for Combating Transnational Crime, the Malacca Straits Security Initiative, the Regional Agreement on Cooperation Against Armed Piracy, the ASEAN Maritime Forum, and the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum. ASEAN has also sought to engage with external partners and stakeholders to address these common challenges.
The exercise also shows that ASEAN is capable of conducting its security cooperation without relying on external powers, such as the United States, which China views as a threat to its interests. The exercise is a way of demonstrating ASEAN’s centrality and solidarity in the face of rising tensions and challenges in the region. However, the exercise is not intended to provoke or antagonize China but rather to enhance mutual trust and confidence among ASEAN members and with China. This is part of a larger initiative called Aman Youyi (Peace and Friendship), which aims to foster cooperation and dialogue between China and ASEAN on non-traditional security issues.
Nevertheless, the exercise was announced three weeks after Beijing released a new map including Taiwan and practically the entire South China Sea. However, Southeast Asian countries and Taiwan rejected the map. 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. Therefore, the ASEAN joint military exercise is a message that ASEAN values its autonomy and independence but also seeks constructive engagement. It is a message that ASEAN hopes to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea through dialogue and adherence to international law.
In conclusion, the ASEAN joint military exercise is a significant step towards realizing the AIOP’s vision and principles for a peaceful, stable, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region. The exercise is a manifestation of ASEAN’s centrality, unity, solidarity, autonomy, independence, complementarity, and cooperation in shaping the regional security order.