Amid regional tensions with China, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is planning its first joint military drill, finalizing on Thursday the location in Indonesia's South Natuna Sea, according to the Indonesian military.
At the 20th ASEAN Chief of Defense Forces Meeting in Bali on June 7, 10 ASEAN military chiefs agreed to conduct routine joint training and coordinated patrols in waters of the South China Sea involving their army, naval and special forces from Sept. 18-25, despite skepticism from member state Cambodia.
The site was moved because several ASEAN member nations are in territorial disputes with China over the resource-rich South China Sea, according to Reuters.
"This exercise is focused not on combat, so it is best suited for the south that is in direct contact with the people," said Indonesian military spokesperson Rear Admiral Julius Widjojono, adding that the drills will be held in and around Batam island at the mouth of the Malacca Strait, another strategic waterway for world trade.
On Monday, the Indonesian military gathered with ASEAN military delegates in the Indonesian capital city of Jakarta to discuss preparations for the exercises, including scenarios, equipment to be used and the drill's location, according to a military press release.
The ASEAN exercise, named Solidarity, will be held as China is asserting its claim to areas of the South China Sea that are also claimed by Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines, all ASEAN member states. This year, Indonesia holds the rotating chair of the regional bloc.
"China believes that defense and security cooperation between countries needs to be conducive to regional peace and stability. They should not escalate tensions or undermine trust between countries, still less target any third party," the spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, Liu Pengyu, told VOA on June 12.
ASEAN members Cambodia and Myanmar, which maintain close ties with China, did not participate in the planning conference on Monday, according to an Indonesian military spokesperson, Rudy Hernawan.
Mohamad Rosyidin, an international relations analyst from Diponegoro University in Semarang, Central Java, said the original location for the military drill in the South China Sea could have deterred participation by some ASEAN countries.
Cambodian General Vong Pisen, commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodia Armed Forces, released a statement earlier this month saying that Cambodia had formed a working group to study the proposal for a combined drill before seeking approval to participate from the Defense Ministry.
Rosyidin said he doubts Cambodia will participate in the drill, citing the country's perceived closeness to China.
China says most of the South China Sea, or approximately 90% of the 3 million-square-kilometer South China Sea, lies within the "nine-dash line" that it views as a maritime border.
The U.S. has responded to China's claims on the South China Sea by vowing to protect and preserve the rules-based maritime order along with ASEAN and the East Asia Summit.
"The People's Republic of China has failed to put forth a lawful, coherent maritime claim in the South China Sea (SCS), and the United States therefore rejects all PRC maritime claims within Indonesia's exclusive economic zone," said a U.S. State Department spokesperson in an email to VOA on Tuesday.
"Freedom of the seas and adherence to international law in the South China Sea are vital interests for the entire international community, including international organizations like ASEAN," the spokesperson said.
"Together we seek the protection and preservation of respect for international law, lawful unimpeded commerce, and freedoms of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the sea."
In the past, ASEAN nations have participated in naval exercises with other countries, including the United States and China, but the September drills would be the first involving just the bloc.
Although some may see the exercise as a signal to China, Indonesia's military chief implied the drills would not be a show of ASEAN's military might.
"ASEAN is not a defense pact," said Admiral Yudo Margono at a news conference in Bali on June 6. "The drill will focus instead on disaster relief, search and rescue activities, followed by community service. The Indonesian military hopes to collaborate [with ASEAN countries] to create regional security. If we can achieve security and stability in the region, we can secure the air and sea trade routes which will then ensure people's welfare."
Widjojono, the military spokesperson, said that the military drill was related to the "high risk of disaster in Asia, especially Southeast Asia."
"The joint military drill will be a great opportunity for Southeast Asian military to better mitigate natural disasters and improve their disaster preparedness,” he said. “So when a disaster occurs in one country, their neighboring country can offer their assistance quicker."
Some information in this report came from Reuters.