The Association of Southeast Asian Nations launched its first joint naval exercise on Tuesday, at a time when several member countries are responding more forcefully to growing Chinese assertiveness in the region.
The non-combat exercises, dubbed Exercise ASEAN Solidarity, include joint maritime patrol operations, search and rescue operations and humanitarian and disaster relief, said Indonesian military chief Admiral Yudo Margono.
He said the five-day exercise in Indonesia’s Natuna waters aims to strengthen military ties between ASEAN countries and enhance interoperability. Civilian groups involved in humanitarian aid and disaster prevention also participate in the exercises.
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ASEAN states have taken part in naval exercises in the past with other countries – including the United States and China – but this week’s drills are the first involving only the bloc and are being read by many as a signal to China.
China’s “nine-dash line,” which it uses to delineate its claim to most of the South China Sea, has brought it into a tense standoff with rival claimants Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines, with Chinese fishing and military vessels to become more and more numerous. aggressive in contested waters.
The line also overlaps with a portion of Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone that extends from the Natuna Islands. Margono initially said the drills would take place in the North Natuna Sea at the edge of the South China Sea, a rift in US-China rivalry, after meetings of ASEAN defense officials in Bali in June.
However, Indonesia, which holds the rotating presidency of ASEAN this year, decided to move the drills to the South Natuna Islands, away from the disputed area, apparently to avoid any backlash from Beijing.
China and ASEAN signed a non-binding agreement in 2002 calling on rival claimant countries to refrain from aggressive actions that could spark armed conflict, including the seizure of barren islets and reefs, but violations persist.
China has come under heavy criticism for militarizing the strategic South China Sea, but says it has the right to build on its territory and defend it at all costs.
“Those who carry out any exploration or activity in this area must not violate the state territory,” Margono said after the opening ceremony of the exercise attended by ASEAN military leaders on Batam Island next to Singapore. “This is clearly regulated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.”
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Asked if ASEAN was sending a stronger message against China’s competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, Margono replied: “We had a firm stance.”
He told reporters that ASEAN has agreed to hold military exercises annually. In the future, they will expand to full-scale war exercises involving the army, navy and air force, he said.
Indonesia and China have generally positive ties, but Jakarta has expressed concern over what it sees as Chinese interference in its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea. Increased activities by Chinese coast guard vessels and fishing vessels in the area have angered Jakarta, prompting its navy to hold a major exercise in July 2020 in the waters around Natuna.
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Despite its official status as a non-claimant in the South China Sea, Indonesia renamed part of it the North Natuna Sea in 2017 to underline its claim that the region, which includes natural gas fields, is part of its exclusive economic zone. Similarly, the Philippines has named part of its territorial waters which it considers the West Philippine Sea.
Vietnam, one of four ASEAN claimant states, has expressed strong concerns about China’s conversion of seven disputed reefs into man-made islands, including three with runways, that now resemble small cities armed with weapons systems.
Two ASEAN members, Cambodia and Laos, both Chinese allies, have opposed the use of harsh language against Beijing in the disputes.