China-Southeast Asian maritime exercises proposed for next year will ease a stalemated dispute over the South China Sea by letting adversaries meet one another’s front-line personnel and work on common issues, experts in the region say.
Singapore’s Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen and his Chinese counterpart Chang Wanquan agreed Monday to plan for the first maritime exercise with ships from China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Singaporean defense ministry said on its website. Singapore will lead the association next year.
Beijing has angered four Southeast Asian states by expanding its coast guard and military presence in the South China Sea, a 3.5 million-square-kilometer tract of water rich in fisheries and fuel reserves. Claims by Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines overlap that of China, which calls nearly the whole sea its own.
Joint exercises would break down suspicion by letting naval personnel meet one another, said Termsak Chalermpalanupap, political and security affairs fellow with the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. Foreign ministries, he added, would be in charge of handling disputes.
“I think it’s good to have the joint exercise,” Chalermpalanupap said. “At least interpersonal contact, that will be important.”
Joint exercises will be especially welcomed if they cover search and rescue work or efforts to stop piracy at sea, said Oh Ei Sun, international studies instructor at Singapore Nanyang University. The countries must avoid politics to ensure success of any maneuvers, he said.
“They would have to really focus on the exercise at hand and all sides should not try to in any way, shall we say, proclaim sovereignty during the exercise,” Oh said.
China began to expand in the sea in 2010 by reclaiming land to build artificial islands, some apparently for military use. It’s ready to deploy radar systems and fighter jets on some, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative under American think tank Center for Strategic & International Studies.
The Chinese military is stronger than the armed forces of the rival coastal states. China’s coast guard ships, oil rigs and unilateral fishing bans in disputed waters have further riled Southeast Asian countries.
Singapore did not suggest where the exercise would take place, a defense ministry publicist said Thursday in response to a question about whether it would unfold in the South China Sea itself.
It’s also unclear whether China has agreed, analysts say, but it probably will as its defense head acknowledged the idea with his Singaporean counterpart Monday.
Singapore’s suggestion probably arose from its position as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations-China dialogue coordinator through next year, Chalermpalanupap said.
The Southeast Asian city-state borders the contested sea but does not claim waters that conflict with Beijing’s claims.
Singapore still worries that any clash in the South China Sea could upset its air and sea traffic, said Huang Kwei-bo, vice dean of the College of International Affairs at National Chengchi University in Taipei. It also wants to ensure China doesn’t get too powerful in the sea as U.S. attention fades, he said.
U.S. President Donald Trump, keen to work with Beijing on containing the military expansion of North Korea, has not clarified whether his government will send naval vessels into the sea regularly to remind China of the U.S. view that the waters are open to all.
“They’re always paying attention,” Huang said. “Singapore hopes, first, that the South China Sea is not dominated by any single power and second, that the sea disputes can (reach) a peaceful resolution.”
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong “released a lot of goodwill” when he visited Beijing in September, Huang added. Lee and counterparts in Beijing agreed to strengthen cooperation on regional issues, easing fears in China that Singapore’s ASEAN leadership next year could challenge Chinese maritime interests.
Rare military cooperation
Cooperation has eluded the South China Sea claimants because of competing sovereignty claims. China’s occupation of a disputed shoal in 2012 prompted the Philippines to request world court arbitration. Last year the court said China lacked a legal basis to much of its claim.
China rejected the verdict but has tried since then to get along better with individual Southeast Asian states, often by offering aid and investment. In an initial sign of broader cooperation, China and ASEAN agreed in August to a framework code of conduct. The eventual code would be designed to head off any accidents at sea, but without touching on sovereignty issues.
The 6-year-old ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus dialogue, where the Chinese and Singaporean military officials came up with the joint exercise idea, shows it’s possible for rivals to work together, international relations Professor Tan See Seng said Thursday in a comment for the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
Members of that dialogue signed an understanding in 2014 on “unplanned counters at sea,” he said.
“Save for a few bright shining moments, the history of multilateral security in the Asia-Pacific has mostly been a frustrated enterprise,” the author said.