In the first two years of the Trump administration, the US Department of Defense has been the torchbearer for maintaining America’s presence and profile in Southeast Asia, compensating for the less visible aspects of US diplomacy. One of the manifestations of the US military – in particular the Indo-Pacific Command – becoming the mainstay of US diplomacy in the region is the ASEAN-US Maritime Exercise (AUMX), which was held in “Southeast Asian waters” from 2 to 6 September 2019.
That AUMX was held should not come as a surprise given the US’ deep and long-standing military-to-military relations with ASEAN member states. Nor should too much be read into the timing of the exercise, which followed on the heels of the inaugural ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise in October 2018. Views of the US playing catch-up to China in the domain of defence diplomacy were off the mark.
In fact, US naval engagement with ASEAN member states is more frequent, expansive, and formalised compared to the Chinese navy’s exercises with ASEAN navies. The US holds five annual and biennial multilateral military exercises (CARAT, Cobra Gold, Khaan Quest, RIMPAC, and SEACAT) with a wide range of ASEAN member states throughout the year. In comparison, China has only two formal naval exercises: “Blue Strike” with Thailand which commenced in 2010, and “Peace and Friendship” exercises with Malaysia since 2015. To be sure, China’s military engagement with ASEAN member states will increase in time to come. Singapore, for example, is set to conduct its second bilateral naval exercise with China in 2020. Yet, as it currently stands, there appears to be more truth to the claim that it is China that is playing catch-up with the US in its maritime defence diplomacy.
More to the point, the AUMX is not merely an act of one-upmanship over China. Rather, its significance lies in the fact that it was the first such exercise between the US and all 10 ASEAN member states. Before AUMX, US engagement was limited to a select group of ASEAN member states. Conducting the naval exercise under the ASEAN banner enables the US to reach out to a wider group of partners beyond Washington’s traditional circle of friends. Beyond this important imperative, AUMX sets a healthy precedent and reinforces ASEAN’s relevance and centrality in two ways.
First, the AUMX’s composition and leadership are significant. The fact that it was co-led by the US and Thailand suggests that AUMX provided an additional boost to the warming of US-Thailand ties in the aftermath of Thailand’s 2014 coup, when Washington’s public condemnation of the military takeover soured relations between the two. The coup also complicated the ability of US officials to sustain high-level interactions with the Thai military junta. Thailand’s position as the ASEAN Chair, however, made it tenable and imperative for Washington and Bangkok to improve ties. Even more noteworthy is Myanmar’s participation in the AUMX despite Washington having only recently imposed fresh sanctions on Naypyidaw, in July, for its handling of the Rohingya crisis. Both Myanmar and Thailand would have found their participation in a multilateral naval exercise under ASEAN’s ambit useful in their quest to either normalise or improve ties with the US, demonstrating the regional organisation’s relevance in providing them with its auspices to bridge ties with the US. Hence, ASEAN opens doors for countries to repair or improve relations in a way that bilateral mechanisms do not necessarily afford, a benefit often taken for granted.
Second, the AUMX must be seen in the context of the abovementioned October 2018 ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise. The latter, which also involved eight ships and 1,000 personnel, was also the first of its kind between ASEAN and China. ASEAN’s successive conduct of multilateral drills with both China and the US signals its intention to widen and broaden its security network, and demonstrates that the regional organisation is inviting towards, and inclusive of, both external powers. It also reinforces the central and coordinating position of ASEAN in managing Southeast Asia’s ties with external partners. The AUMX thus allows ASEAN to give tangible form to its oft-proclaimed regional centrality.
Along with other past and future multilateral exercises, the AUMX illustrates the desire of external powers to cooperate with ASEAN, and is a testament that external powers recognise, both ASEAN’s relevance and its claims to centrality in the region.
Dr. Tang Siew Mun is Head and Mr. Glenn Ong is Research Officer at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
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