“China Multilateralizes its Defence Diplomacy in Southeast Asia” by Ian Storey

2018/95, 25 October 2018

China has stepped up its defence diplomacy in Southeast Asia by participating in simultaneous naval exercises with the ASEAN states.

From 20 to 29 October, China will hold combined exercises with Malaysia and Thailand in the Straits of Malacca. China and Malaysia have contributed two warships each, while Thailand has sent around 50 military personnel.

From 22 to 29 October, ASEAN and China will hold the second phase of a maritime exercise in the waters off Zhanjiang, Guangdong province (the first phase was a table top exercise held in Singapore in August). Eight ships will participate: three from China and one each from Brunei, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar have sent observers, while landlocked Laos is not participating.

The two exercises are the first time China has held multilateral exercises with countries from Southeast Asia, and the first time ASEAN has conducted multilateral exercises with a single country.

By taking part in these two exercises China is trying to demonstrate that it can play a constructive role in maritime security at a time when regional concerns over its militarization of the South China Sea dispute are rising. China is also increasing its defence diplomacy activities with the ASEAN states as it seeks to erode America’s influence in the region and undermine its bilateral defence partnerships with Southeast Asian countries.

China’s support for multilateral security arrangements is also at odds with its diplomatic stance. For instance, in August defence ministers from ASEAN and China endorsed a single draft negotiating text for the Code of Conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea. Beijing inserted a provision into the text which encourages military exercises between ASEAN and China in the South China Sea but not between the ASEAN states and other countries without the prior consent of all 11 parties to the CoC. If accepted, this would effectively give China a veto over military exercises between America and the ASEAN states.

The majority of ASEAN states will find this provision unacceptable, and will seek to have it removed during the course of the negotiations. As always, the ASEAN states seek to maintain a strategic balance in the region by ensuring all the major powers have a presence. While ASEAN welcomes improved defence diplomacy activities with China, it cannot allow this to occur at the expense of security cooperation with other countries. It is therefore no coincidence that at the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus in Singapore last week, the ASEAN ministers agreed to hold a multilateral naval exercise with the United States next year.

Dr Ian Storey is Senior Fellow at the 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.