As South China Sea tensions rise, China’s participation in Asean naval exercise raises hope of calmer waters

  • Yang Zi and Li Mingjiang say the joint maritime exercise highlights the warming of China-Asean relations as the Belt and Road Initiative makes inroads
  • However, it does not imply that Asean is leaning towards China and away from the US, with a range of disagreements yet to be resolved
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 November, 2018, 1:15pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 November, 2018, 8:27pm

It was not so long ago that tensions between some Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) countries and China were high, largely because of South China Sea disputes. For years, there were dangerous conflicts between China and some Asean claimants to parts of the South China Sea that resulted in the deterioration of relations between China and these neighbouring countries.

In the past year or so, however, the situation has changed. In a world of rising instability and unpredictability, the demand for regional cooperation and order is now on the rise, especially in Southeast Asia, a region that has prospered peacefully after decades as a cold war battleground. 

Relations between China and Asean nations have been improving in the recent past, particularly after China became a keen investor, pouring in billions of dollars into the region’s infrastructure and connectivity projects as part of the Belt and Road Initiative that Beijing launched in late 2013.

China understands that rising tensions in the South China Sea will only undermine the initiative in Southeast Asia, and strained relations with Asean countries will contribute to the growth of other major powers’ strategic influence in the region. Most Asean states are certainly not interested in pursuing a confrontational approach towards China and are willing to give Beijing’s call for stability and improvement of bilateral ties a try.

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Cordial statements between political leaders have also been echoed among military officers. The recently concluded Asean Defence Ministers Plus Meeting was seen as a success, and the Asean-China Maritime Exercise, in particular, marked a watershed in Asean-China military-to-military relations and bilateral security ties. For the first time, navies from Asean nations and China took part in a joint exercise with the intent of increasing mutual understanding and decreasing the chance of miscalculation.

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Singapore, the Asean-China country coordinator and Asean Defence Ministers Plus Meeting chair, was instrumental in putting together the joint naval exercise that included onshore medical and diving exchanges and drills at sea that encompassed fleet communications and manoeuvres, cross-deck helicopter landings and joint search and rescue missions. It also included training based on the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, an agreement adopted four years ago at the Western Pacific Naval Symposium with the goal of reducing unexpected maritime incidents between the navies of signatory nations.

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So far, the feedback from Asean-China Maritime Exercise participants has been overwhelmingly positive, with a survey of media reports among Asean states showing favourable reviews. As one Vietnam People’s Navy colonel who took part in the exercise pointed out, although language barriers, differences in force management, military culture and capabilities still pose challenges, the exercise nevertheless achieved its goals.

The significance of the exercise should be understood in the broader context of Asean-China relations. For over three decades, Southeast Asia-China relations have been deepening, particularly in terms of economic cooperation. However, defence cooperation, hampered by insufficient strategic trust and the South China Sea disputes, has been a weak link in bilateral ties.

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After years of sharp rhetoric between some Asean countries and China that created a fair amount of ill will and harmed relations, the opportunity to foster trust and confidence has been welcomed by all. Overall, the joint naval exercise successfully achieved its goals of improving transparency between Asean militaries and China’s People’s Liberation Army, developing working relations between Asean and the Chinese military at all levels, and reducing tensions by broadening cooperation between commanders.

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This exercise may also play a positive role for Asean-China relations in the longer run. As defence relations continue to be improved, there may be a greater possibility of expanding cooperation between Asean countries and China in areas that used to be difficult. They may find it easier to engage in maritime cooperation in, for instance, search and rescue in the South China Sea.

We must not see this exercise as Asean’s attempt to lean fully towards China. The exercise is unlikely to change the strategic fundamentals in bilateral ties

Coupled with the gradual progress that has been made in Asean-China negotiations for a code of conduct in the South China Sea, substantive defence cooperation may help contribute to the continued overall stability in the South China Sea. The Chinese military may also have stronger interests in taking part in various humanitarian aid and disaster relief activities in Southeast Asia, a region that is often plagued by natural calamities.

All the positive implications of the joint naval exercises for Asean-China relations notwithstanding, we must not see this exercise as Asean’s attempt to lean fully towards China. The exercise is unlikely to change the strategic fundamentals in bilateral ties.

There is still a range of disagreements waiting to be resolved. In addition, Asean is interested in furthering ties with all regional players, evidenced by the joint Asean-US naval drills planned in the coming year. In an unstable world, Asean states do not want to be dragged into any conflict between the great powers, but hope to work with all as equal partners to maximise their interests through win-win exchanges.

Yang Zi and Li Mingjiang are a senior analyst and an associate professor respectively at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore