Naval ships from various nations including Vietnam participating in RIMPAC 2018 assemble for a photo exercise off the coast of Hawaii on June 26. Image courtesy: AFP
Article No. 36/2019
Courtesy: Carlyle A. Thayer, “US-ASEAN First Maritime Exercise,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, August 26, 2019
Q1) To what extent is this exercise a tit for tat reaction to the ASEAN maritime exercise with China last year?
ANSWER: The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been positioning itself between the United States and China for at least thirteen years as both powers have reached out to engage ASEAN Defence Ministers. This process can be dated to 2006 when the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) was officially established for the first time. The ADMM was expanded in 2010 to include a separate meeting with dialogue partners, including China and the U.S., under the acronym ADMM Plus.
In April 2014, the United States took the first step to engage ASEAN Defence Ministers by hosting the inaugural U.S.-ASEAN Defence Forum in Honolulu. In October the following year, China responded by hosting the first China-ASEAN Informal Defence Ministers Meeting in Beijing. In October 2016, ASEAN, to give parity to its relations, met with the United States in Honolulu for the first Informal Defence Ministers’ Meeting. ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meetings with China and the United States have continued on an annual basis.
In October 2018, in significant shift in emphasis, China hosted the first joint ASEAN China Maritime Field Training Exercise off Guangdong province. Vietnam participated by deploying the Gepard-class frigate Tran Hung Dao HQ-015. Earlier, in August, Singapore hosted a table top exercise that developed five serials (planned exercises) for the Maritime Field Training Exercise.
In May 2019, the ADMM Plus hosted the first naval exercises between six ASEAN navies and six dialogue partners – Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and the United States. Vietnam participated by dispatching the Gepard-class frigate Quang Trung HQ-016.
And once again, to demonstrate parity, Thailand as ASEAN Chair will host the first joint United States-ASEAN Maritime Exercise in the Gulf of Thailand in September this year.
Vietnam has officially announced it will take part.
I would not characterize these developments as “tit for tat” (implying retaliation) but a balancing act by ASEAN to treat China and the United States even handedly.
Q2) Is this exercise more symbolic than practical? And if so, what message is a) the U.S. and b) ASEAN trying to send?
ANSWER: We should be very clear not to confuse the term “military exercise” as an activity to impart war-fighting skills with the kinds of exercises that ASEAN has engaged with the People’s Liberation Army Navy and the U.S. Navy. These have been low end affairs. The first China-ASEAN Maritime Exercise was a field training exercise that focused on maritime safety, search and rescue, communications at sea and practicing the Code for Unexpected Encounters at Sea (CUES): According to U.S. officials, the first U.S.-ASEAN maritime exercise will include “maintaining maritime security, focus on protection and pre-empt wrongdoing in the sea.” The participants will “search, verify, and legally prosecute suspicious boats.” ASEAN participates in these joint maritime exercises to demonstrate its centrality in regional affairs and to ward off pressures from China and the United States to take sides. The United States is demonstrating its continued commitment to ASEAN and the indispensable role that the U.S. Navy contributes to regional security.
Q3) To what extent is the exercise part of what appears to be the Trump Administration’s escalating activity in the South China Sea, which has seen an increasing number of U.S. freedom-of-navigation operations?
ANSWER: The joint ASEAN-United States Maritime Exercise is completely separate from the formal U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operational Patrols (FONOPS) that are conducted unilaterally in the South China Sea to challenge China’s excessive maritime claims. Both, however, are part of the larger U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy to keep the region’s sea lanes free and open.
Q4) To what extent will China see the exercise as a challenge to its South China Sea claims?
ANSWER: Beijing will not view the ASEAN-United States Maritime Exercise as a challenge to its South China Sea claims as it is being conducted in the Gulf of Thailand, albeit off Vietnam’s southern-most province of Ca Mau.
Q5) Taken together, to what extent do the pair of exercises with the U.S. and China mark an escalation in the dispute over the South China Sea? And how likely are they to become regular events?
ANSWER: ASEAN’s joint maritime exercises with China and the United States are likely to be regular – possibly triennial – and will be scheduled not to interfere with ADMM Plus joint maritime exercises. ASEAN views these exercises as contributing to trust. They do no mark any escalation of maritime disputes in the South China Sea.
However, ASEAN has a serious obstacle to face. China’s submission to the ASEAN China South China Sea Code of Conduct Single Draft Negotiating Text included four points on military cooperation. China’s first point stated that “military activities in the region shall be conducive to enhancing mutual trust.” China’s second point called for exchanges between defence and military forces including “mutual port calls of military vessels and joint patrols on a regular basis.” Point three called for “undertaking joint military exercises among China and ASEAN Member States on a regular basis.” Then came point four, with a sting in the tail:
“The Parties shall establish a notification mechanism on military activities, and to notify each other of major military activities if deemed necessary. The Parties shall not hold joint military exercises with countries from outside the region, unless the parties concerned are notified beforehand and express no objection”.
In other words, China seeks to bind ASEAN to regular military exercises and reserve the right to veto any ASEAN military exercise with “countries outside the region,” particularly the United States.
[Carlyle A. Thayer is an Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra. The views expressed are his own. Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients. The views expressed in this article are of the author.]