Indonesia hosted ASEAN’s first naval exercises

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Makassar, Indonesia - Two navy ships in Makassar sea

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) recently concluded its inaugural joint military exercises. Indonesia, as the outgoing chair of the regional organisation, organized these five-day naval drills, known as the ASEAN Solidarity Exercise, which wrapped up in the waters near Batam Island, located to the south of Singapore.

The exercise was centred around enhancing cooperation among ASEAN nations’ militaries and improving their preparedness for humanitarian disaster responses, at a time of growing tensions in the South China Sea. China’s expanding activities in the region have raised concerns among four ASEAN member states – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam – each of which also asserts territorial claims in parts of the South China Sea.

These joint military drills are historical, as ASEAN had never before conducted such exercises. The ASEAN Solidarity Exercise, also known as ASEX 23, was initially proposed by Indonesia during a meeting of the organisation’s defence ministers earlier in the year. The drills began on September 18 in Indonesia’s South Natuna Sea and encompassed activities like joint maritime patrols, simulated medical evacuations, search and rescue operations, and disaster relief efforts. Exercises like ASEX 23 contribute to building confidence among ASEAN member states and facilitate the strengthening of military-to-military relations to foster regional peace and stability.

Southeast Asia faces a heightened risk of natural disasters due to its geographical location, frequently experiencing severe weather events, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. Given this vulnerability and the increasing frequency of extreme weather due to climate change, regional cooperation in disaster response is deemed prudent.

However, these joint military exercises also take place in the context of evolving geopolitics. The escalating rivalry between the United States and China has led to a regional arms race and prompted a reassessment of security alliances. Indonesia framed these exercises as a demonstration of ASEAN centrality, recognizing the backdrop of a clash of the titans.

Groupings in this context include AUKUS (comprising the US, UK, and Australia) and the Quad (consisting of the US, India, Australia, and Japan), both seen as efforts to counter China’s assertive posture in the South China Sea and other regions.

During the exercises, the non-combat nature of the drills was stressed. While the assets utilized were primarily non-combatant, experts view these exercises as confidence-building measures and opportunities for mutual understanding among ASEAN countries.

Participants in these exercises came from all 10 ASEAN member countries, with East Timor (Timor-Leste), expected to join ASEAN by 2025, also participating. However, not all countries sent naval vessels to the exercises, indicating varying levels of participation. Myanmar’s involvement was limited to an “observer” status, with its top leaders barred from summits and major meetings due to the ongoing crisis triggered by the military coup in February 2021.

The diversity in military capabilities and strategic objectives among ASEAN member states presents challenges for achieving operational interoperability. Initially formed during the Cold War to counter communism, ASEAN has grown to encompass a combined population of 662 million people and a GDP of $3.2 trillion. While its primary successes have been in economic development and trade, it does not have the same level of security integration as entities like the European Union or NATO.

Nonetheless, Southeast Asia faces considerable security challenges, from climate change to political turmoil in Myanmar and the complex South China Sea disputes. The divergent approaches and interests of ASEAN member states regarding the South China Sea issue have made it challenging for the organisation to present a unified response. Decisions within ASEAN are made by consensus, with the principles of non-interference in internal affairs and peaceful conflict resolution guiding its actions.

Efforts to finalize a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea have made limited progress, and ASEAN members have at times found themselves at odds with each other over the issue. The complexity of these disputes and the geopolitical dynamics surrounding them underscore the challenges ASEAN faces in maintaining regional stability and security. But the ASEAN Solidarity Exercise marked a significant step in regional military cooperation, highlighting the multifaceted challenges facing Southeast Asia as it strives to address security concerns and maintain stability in the region.

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