The Asean-US Maritime Exercise, which ended on Friday, was the first involving forces from the US and all 10 member nations of Asean. Photo: AP
Richard Heydarian
Richard Heydarian

Heavy traffic in South China Sea: US vies with China in joint naval drills with Asean members

  • With first ever naval exercise with all 10 members of Association of Southeast Asian Nations, US is responding to China’s own efforts, Richard Heydarian writes
  • But for Asean states, the drill is part of a strategy to reach out to as many major powers as possible to enhance their autonomy

“Imitation is the sincerest [form] of flattery,” the 19th-century English writer Charles Caleb Colton once famously said. Some could view Washington’s inaugural joint naval exercises with Asean as a backhanded compliment to Beijing’s similar undertaking last year.

After all, since 2018, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have actually held not one, but at least three joint naval exercises. Though a relative newcomer as a major regional security provider, Beijing is rapidly enhancing its naval diplomacy and interoperability with Asean.

China and Asean held at least three joint naval exercises last year. Photo: Weibo

Unwilling to be outdone, the Pentagon has kicked off its own first ever joint naval exercises with all 10 members of the regional body. In fact, joint exercises with Asean extend a long tradition of robust American naval engagement with Southeast Asian nations. Beyond Sino-American competition, however, this is primarily about the Asean “omni-balancing” strategy of reaching out to as many major powers as possible to enhance their own strategic autonomy.

To be fair, these aren’t the first ever US naval exercises with southeast Asian nations. In recent years, the Pentagon has not only held bilateral and minilateral drills with regional states such as Singapore and the Philippines, but also multilateral exercises such as Southeast Asia Cooperation Training and the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training.

In May, the US held its first ever “quadrilateral” naval exercises with its treaty allies, the Philippines and Japan, along with India, which has over the past decade increasingly aligned towards the West. Meanwhile, recent years have also seen the so-called squad exercises with Singapore along with the “Quad” powers of Australia, US, India and Japan.

This has gone hand in hand with rapidly expanding naval cooperation with the Southeast Asian powerhouse of Indonesia, which has pushed back against a Chinese presence in the so-called “North Natuna Sea”. Even more astonishing is the burgeoning US partnership with former regional enemies such as Vietnam, which has welcomed back, for the first time in decades, American warships to Cam Ranh Bay.

The Asean-US Maritime Exercise (AUMX), however, is the first time Washington has held drills with all 10 members of Asean. The operations, which involve 1,260 personnel, eight warships and four aircraft, are taking place in the Gulf of Thailand all the way to waters off the coast of Vietnam. The US Navy confirmed that AUMX began on Monday and would conclude on Friday.

To underscore its commitment to the region, the US has deployed the guided-missile destroyer USS Wayne E. Meyer, the littoral combat ship USS Montgomery, a P-8 Poseidon aircraft and three MH-60 helicopters to the five-day exercises.

Rear Admiral Joey Tynch, US naval commander of the Logistics Group at the Indo-Pacific Command, was adamant that the exercise was beyond just “symbolic”, since it is “providing value for each of the countries” through enhanced interoperability, naval diplomacy and information sharing.

Likely, AUMX is part of a broader effort to institutionalise various confidence-building as well as conflict-prevention measures among regional states. At the same time, the US is also responding to China’s proactive naval diplomacy.

In October, the first China-Asean Maritime Exercise took place off the coast of Zhanjiang in southern China’s Guangdong province. The weeklong drills, which saw the participation of six major Asean countries, including the US allies Thailand and the Philippines, marked a watershed in Beijing’s defence cooperation with its smaller neighbours.

The event saw a complex array of drills, with focus on non-traditional security threats, as well as China’s deployment of major People’s Liberation Army naval assets, including the 6,000-tonne Guangzhou multi-missile destroyer, the Huangshan type 054A-class frigate and the 10,000-tonne Junshanhu type 961 replenishment ship.

China begins joint naval drills with six Southeast Asian nations

Just months earlier, China and key Asean states conducted simulated naval drills off Singapore’s Changi naval base. And this year, they held the Joint Maritime Drill 2019 in Qingdao. The occasion, which coincided with celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the PLA Navy’s founding, included the participation of Vice-Admiral Shen Jinlong, commander of the PLA Navy, who promoted the event as part of Beijing’s efforts at “building a maritime community with a shared future” with its southern neighbours.

For the Pentagon, the latest exercises aren’t only part of efforts to keep China’s naval diplomacy in check. Crucially, the joint exercises with Southeast Asian states are taking place mostly in the South China Sea.

In its recent Indo-Pacific Strategy paper, the Pentagon has made it clear that it is “prioritising new relationships” with “key players in Asean that remain central in our efforts to ensure peace and underwrite prosperity in the Indo-Pacific”.

The drills with Asean are precisely aimed at mobilising maximum possible support for US efforts at constraining China’s growing strategic footprint in the area.

China ‘puts wartime command system to test’ in South China Sea drills

For Asean members, this is also about reasserting their strategic prerogative. In particular, it’s a direct rebuke to China’s push for a code of conduct in the South China Sea, which would give Beijing a de facto veto 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”.

Perhaps the late Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew best summed up Asean’s goal when he told the Americans “to give the region options besides China”. In short, the inaugural US-Asean maritime exercise is less about either the US or China, but instead a reflection of Southeast Asian nations’ quest for maximum room to manoeuvre.

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based writer