Asean militaries between US, China
The inaugural Asean-United States Maritime Exercise (AUMX) this week has sent ripples far and wide to the shores of regional states from Beijing and Tokyo to New Delhi. Hosted by Thailand at its Sattahip naval base in Chon Buri province, the first AUMX comes nearly a year after Asean held a similar maritime drill with China off the coast of Guangdong province. At issue is the intensifying rivalry between the US and China on the one hand and Asean's centrality and geopolitical balance between the two superpowers on the other. Several implications are discernible.
First, the nature of geostrategic rivalry and military preparedness is shifting from land to sea, placing more emphasis on maritime security. Although it is a continental country and with a large army, the US is known as a maritime superpower. Its claim to global preeminence is attributable to its military might at sea and its ability to project power in far-flung parts of the world, thanks partly to having more than a dozen aircraft carriers. Traditionally a land power, China has had to develop a blue-water navy that can operate and engage as far as Africa, the Middle East, and the Antarctic. Its carrier groups are expanding, although still nowhere near the capacity and capability of its American rival.
That the nature of potential future conflict is likely to be seaborne puts Asean in the middle of the US-China face-off. China's Belt and Road Initiative in South and Southeast Asia are being countered by the US-led Indo-Pacific geostrategy with the centre of gravity located roughly around the South China Sea. This is why both the US and China need to win over Southeast Asian states. Any major conflict will be won not just by war-fighting capabilities but also by a network of allies and partners. Who has more friends in a fight has a better chance of winning.
Second, the US-China maritime contest and its focus on the South China Sea test Asean's mettle. Asean needs unity to remain neutral and avoid being divided by either superpower. Holding naval drills with the US this year, after a similar exercise with China last year, is Asean's way of hedging and balancing between the two superpowers.
Beijing will surely cast a wary eye on the AUMX but is unlikely to be overly alarmed. Apart from its own maritime exercise with Asean last year and in the near future, the AUMX is limited in scale and scope. All combined, the 10 Asean countries and the US will deploy eight ships, four aircraft, and just over a thousand naval personnel. Malaysia and Indonesia also decided to send just observers, not ships, to participate in the exercise, although a Myanmar vessel is included despite the country's human rights situation. Much of the training will also focus on non-traditional security and maritime safety, such as search and rescue operations and unexpected encounters at sea.
China would be less perturbed by these naval manoeuvres as compared to the US unilateral freedom-of-navigation operational patrols (Fonops). Under the Trump administration, Fonops in the South China Sea have become more frequent and assertive as a way of maintaining open sea lanes and overflight. As long as Asean keeps maritime exercises with China on parity with the US through the AUMX, then potential flashpoints are likely to stem from unilateral action by either superpower.
Third, China is likely to try to outflank the US not through maritime exercises with Asean but by way of the Asean-China South China Sea Code of Conduct (CoC) Single Draft Negotiating Text. If China had its way, the CoC will end up being exclusionary and confined to just China and Asean states. China's preferred CoC means that Asean's future maritime exercises would have to exclude the US and other major powers unless Beijing is notified and grants its approval to begin with.
Fourth, Vietnam's role is the most significant in the AUMX context. Along with the Philippines, which won a major South China Sea case against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016, Vietnam's stakes are the highest among Asean countries because of its overlapping claims with China. While Thailand hosted the AUMX, much of the actual naval drills will take place off Vietnam's Ca Mau province with proximity to the South China Sea.
In 2020, Vietnam will take over as Asean's chair and concurrently hold a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Vietnam's dilemma is that its economic interdependence with China is dense and deep but its bilateral security ties are tense. Having actively participated in both the Asean-China and the AUMX, Vietnam's challenge, like Asean's, will be to find a balance between the US and China.
Finally, while the US is clearly indicating that it intends to up its geostrategic game in Southeast Asia, Asean's message is to maintain a balance between the two superpowers, giving equal treatment to each, and not taking sides. Doing so maintains Asean's relative neutrality centrality in the region.
The more the US and China go after each other, the more each will need Asean's support and cooperation. While China is perceived to have divided Asean in the recent past over South China Sea issues, the US is providing leverage for Asean to regain its unity to maintain its central role in the region. While the US-China confrontation is likely to worsen, Asean ironically may be able to repair and restore some of its lost cohesion and unity.
A PROFESSOR AT CHULALONGKORN UNIVERSITY
A professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.