“ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise is not a Zero-Sum Game” by Hoang Thi Ha

2018/94, 25 October 2018

Having built up a considerable level of familiarity and comfort among the participating defense establishments over the past decade, the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM) and the ADMM-Plus are increasingly geared towards action-oriented measures to deal with complex security issues in the region, especially counter-terrorism and maritime security. As highlighted in the Joint Statement on Practical Confidence-Building Measures at the 5th ADMM-Plus on 20 October 2018 in Singapore, the defence collaborative efforts are focusing on conducting joint exercises and developing protocols on maritime interactions to reduce collision risks and manage untoward incidents at sea. This has become all the more imperative after the near collision of US and Chinese destroyers in the South China Sea in early October – a grim reminder of the increasingly congested and contested regional maritime domain. The objective is to navigate the growing geopolitical contestation in the region by identifying common ground for constructive and practical collaboration.

In this regard, a lot of attention has been given to the ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise conducted from 20-28 October in Zhanjiang, China, following a table-top exercise in Singapore in August 2018. The ongoing field-training drills involve over 1000 military personnel and naval ships from both sides. There are of course some geopolitical nuances from this event, especially from Beijing’s perspective, i.e. demonstrating that China and ASEAN are managing well their maritime problems and showcasing China as an emerging security partner of ASEAN. The latter point should be closely scrutinised in the future, since China would certainly push for more regular military exercises and other defense cooperation with ASEAN member states while discouraging them from doing so with countries outside the region, the US in particular. Vice-Admiral Yuan Yubai of the Chinese Navy even linked this exercise to China and ASEAN’s shared destiny – a very ambiguous concept that potentially carries the notion of exclusivity in ASEAN-China security relations.

It is however pre-mature to read this development as a strategic setback for the US side. First of all, America’s security engagements with a number of individual ASEAN member states are deep and extensive, including regular high-level military exchanges, port visits, joint exercises, arms sales, training and capacity building, naval engagement activities and provision of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR). US-led maritime exercises at bilateral, minilateral or multilateral levels have steadily continued  and expanded over the past two decades, including the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) – a bilateral naval exercise series between the US and seven ASEAN member states (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and Thailand); the Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT) – an annual exercise involving the US and most Southeast Asian navies and coast guards focusing on maritime terrorism and other transnational crimes at sea; and the annual US-led Pacific Partnership devoted to HADR. As shown in the resumption of the full-fledged Balikatan exercise in 2018 between the US and the Philippines (after being scaled back in 2017), these long-running engagements have proven to be mutually beneficial to both sides and are not easy to unwind.

Secondly, ASEAN does not look at this whole scheme of things as a zero-sum game. It bears reminding that this maritime exercise with China is not the kind of war game to test combat readiness in conflict simulations. It has a practical and constructive purpose of enhancing operational communication and coordination in search and rescue, application of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, and medical evacuation. From ASEAN’s point of view, benefits could be gained from on-the-ground interactions with the Chinese Navy, especially in developing mutual trust and a sense of familiarity and comfort through working together.

Furthermore, while embracing China as a closer security partner through the defence track, ASEAN does not lose sight of its open and inclusive outlook for the broader regional order. As ASEAN proceeds with drills with the Chinese Navy, an ASEAN-US maritime exercise is being planned for next year. ASEAN’s broader vision is to engage not only the great powers but also all partners across the power spectrum to help prevent the regional order from being skewed towards the orbit of any single country. Geopolitical considerations are in fact not isolated or detached from practical maritime cooperation under the ADMM/ADMM-Plus ambit. At the same time, geopolitical contest does not have to stand in the latter’s way if areas of common interest and concern can be identified for mutually beneficial collaboration.

Ms Hoang Thi Ha is Lead Researcher II (Political and Security Affairs) at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.