“ASEAN-US Naval Manoeuvers all About Geopolitical Manoeuvring” by Ian Storey

2019/74, 11 September 2019

The ASEAN-US Maritime Exercise (AUMX) from the 2nd to the 6th September was designed to hone the seaborne interdiction skills of participating navies. It also presented an opportunity for the US, China and Southeast Asia to advance their geopolitical agendas.

AUMX took place 11 months after the inaugural ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise (ACMX) in October 2018. ACMX and AUMX were comparable in size, duration and scope: ACMX lasted eight days, AUMX five days; China contributed three warships to ACMX, the US two to AUMX; five Southeast Asian warships participated in ACMX (from Brunei, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) and six in AUMX (from Brunei, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam); both exercises focused on addressing non-traditional security issues and took place in the South China Sea (but outside China’s expansive nine-dash line).

While senior US naval commanders denied AUMX was connected to rising tensions in the South China Sea, the dispute was ever present in the background. Both Rear Admiral Joey Tynch, Commander of Task Force 73, and Rear Admiral Kenneth Whitesell, Deputy Commander of the US Pacific Fleet, said the exercise demonstrated a shared commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, the Trump administration’s policy towards the region which explicitly identifies China as a strategic competitor and aims to pushback against Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea. Eight days before the exercise started, one of the participating US warships, the destroyer USS Wayne E. Meyer, had conducted a “freedom of navigation operation” (FONOP) at Mischief Reef and Fiery Cross Reef, two of China’s heavily-militarized artificial islands in the Spratlys. The day after the FONOP, the Pentagon criticized China for its “coercive interference” in Vietnam’s off-shore oil and gas industry, a reference to the presence of a Chinese survey ship and coast guard vessels at Vanguard Bank. A few weeks earlier, the US State Department had called on China to end its “bullying behaviour” in the South China Sea.

In response, China’s state-owned Global Times accused the US of using AUMX to exert military pressure on Beijing in the South China Sea, and warned Southeast Asia states that “bonding with the US force to infringe on Chinese territorial integrity will only make regional conditions more complicated and harm the common security of Southeast Asia”. In negotiations between China and ASEAN for a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea, Beijing has attempted to include a provision which would give it a veto over future military exercises between Southeast Asian countries and the US, a restriction they will almost certainly reject.

As both ACMX and AUMX demonstrate, ASEAN wants to balance its relations with the two superpowers while ensuring its strategic autonomy and centrality in the regional security architecture. As competition between the US and China intensifies, maintaining that balancing act will become both more necessary and more difficult. Lack of unity over the South China Sea may prove to be ASEAN’s Achilles heel. While Vietnam welcomes US criticism of China’s actions in the South China Sea and supports America’s military presence, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad called AUMX “a waste of money” that would only provoke and threaten China.

Dr Ian Storey is Senior Fellow at 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.