“Seven Southeast Asian Countries Fly the Flag at RIMPAC 2018” by Ian Storey

2018/76, 4 July 2018

Southeast Asia’s presence at the US-led Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises off Hawaii is the largest since the biennial naval drills began in 1971.

The world’s largest multilateral naval exercises began on 27 June and will end on 2 August. RIMPAC 2018 involves 26 countries, over 50 warships, 200 aircraft and 25,000 military personnel. RIMPAC is designed to enhance interoperability among the participating navies and includes activities ranging from non-sensitive disaster relief and counter-piracy training to more complex warfighting exercises such as anti-submarine warfare, air defence and amphibious operations.

A record seven Southeast Asian countries are participating in RIMPAC 2018: Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines have sent warships while Brunei, Thailand and Vietnam have contributed military personnel who will be deployed aboard US naval ships. (The remaining three ASEAN members are excluded because US sanctions limit America’s military engagement with Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar).

Greater Southeast Asian involvement in RIMPAC 2018 is in sync with the Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) which called for closer security cooperation between the US and countries in Southeast Asia, particularly “cooperative maritime partners” Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. It is also an indication of Southeast Asian countries’ continued support for a major US military presence in the region, especially at a time of burgeoning Chinese naval power and rising tensions in the South China Sea.

RIMPAC 2018 marks Vietnam’s inaugural participation and reflects expanding, albeit incrementally, US-Vietnam military-to-military ties. The Philippines’ contribution of warships for the first time ever underscores the durability of the US-Philippine alliance in spite of President Rodrigo Duterte’s ambivalence towards bilateral military ties. It is also the first time Malaysia has sent a warship to the drills.

As always, however, Southeast Asian countries are keen to give the appearance of keeping their relations with the US and China in equilibrium. All ten ASEAN members will participate in a two-stage maritime exercise with China in 2018: a table-top exercise in Singapore in August followed by an at-sea exercise later in the year, probably in non-disputed areas of the South China Sea.

China is not participating in RIMPAC 2018. On 23 May the Pentagon revoked China’s invitation because Beijing had deployed anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles to three of its artificial islands in the Spratlys. America’s disinvitation has left the Chinese leadership completely unfazed. On the same day as the RIMPAC exercises began, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. When Mattis expressed concern at China’s militarization of the South China Sea, Xi rebuffed him by affirming that when it came to matters of sovereignty and territorial integrity “We cannot lose even one inch of the territory left behind by our ancestors.”

Dr Ian Storey is Senior Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

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