Jakarta, Indonesia — The Association of Southeast Asian Nations launched its first joint naval exercise on Tuesday, at a time when several member countries are reacting more strongly to China’s growing assertiveness in the region.
The non-combat exercises, called the ASEAN Solidarity Exercise, include joint maritime patrol operations, search and rescue operations, as well as humanitarian and disaster relief, Indonesia’s military chief said. Admiral Yudo Margono.
He said the five-day exercise in Indonesia’s Natuna waters aimed to strengthen military ties between ASEAN countries and enhance interoperability. The exercises also involve civilian groups involved in humanitarian aid and disaster prevention.
ASEAN countries have previously participated in naval exercises with other countries, including the United States and China, but this week’s exercises are the first involving only the bloc and are interpreted by many as a signal to to China.
China’s “nine-dash line”, which it uses to demarcate its claims to most of the South China Sea, has placed it in tense clashes with rival rivals Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines, with Chinese fishing boats and military ships becoming more and more numerous. aggressive in contested waters.
The line also straddles a section of Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone extending from the Natuna Islands. Margono initially said the exercises would take place in the North Natuna Sea on the edge of the South China Sea, a fault line in the U.S.-China rivalry, following meetings of China officials. defense of ASEAN in Bali in June.
However, Indonesia, which holds ASEAN’s rotating presidency this year, decided to move the exercises to the South Natuna Islands, away from the disputed area, apparently to avoid any backlash from Beijing.
China and ASEAN signed a non-binding agreement in 2002 calling on the rival nations to avoid aggressive action that could spark armed conflict, including the occupation of barren islets and reefs, but violations have persisted.
China has faced heavy criticism for its militarization of the strategic South China Sea, but says it has the right to build on its territories and defend them at all costs.
“Those who carry out exploration or activities in this area must not violate the territory of the state,” Margono said after the opening ceremony of the exercise in the presence of ASEAN military leaders on the island of Batam, near Singapore. “This has been clearly regulated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.”
Asked if ASEAN was sending a stronger message against China’s competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, Margono said: “We have taken a strong stance. »
He told reporters that ASEAN had agreed to hold military exercises every year. In the future, they will be expanded to comprehensive war exercises involving the army, navy and air force, he said.
Indonesia and China enjoy generally positive relations, but Jakarta has expressed concern over what it sees as Chinese encroachment into its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea. Increased activities by Chinese coast guard vessels and fishing boats in the region have unnerved Jakarta, prompting its navy to conduct a large exercise in July 2020 in the waters around Natuna.
Despite its official position as a non-claimant state in the South China Sea, Indonesia renamed part of that sea in 2017 as the North Natuna Sea to emphasize its claim that the area, which includes natural gas deposits, is part of its exclusive economic zone. Likewise, the Philippines has named part of what it considers its territorial waters the West Philippine Sea.
Vietnam, one of four ASEAN claimant states, has expressed concerns over China’s transformation of seven controversial reefs into artificial islands, including three with airstrips, which now resemble small towns armed with weapon systems.
Two ASEAN members, Cambodia and Laos, both allies of China, have opposed the use of strong language against Beijing in these disputes.