A TV screen showing the U.S. Navy fleet sail in formation near the models of Liaoning aircraft carrier with navy frigates and submarines on display at the military museum in Beijing, Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said…
A TV screen showing the U.S. Navy fleet sail in formation near the models of Liaoning aircraft carrier with navy frigates and submarines on display at the military museum in Beijing, Aug. 1, 2019.

TAIPEI, TAIWAN - The first military exercises between the United States and a bloc of 10 Southeast Asian nations, following the same bloc’s drills with China last year, show that both superpowers increasingly hope to influence a part of the world that could swing either way, observers say.

U.S. military officials and counterparts from the Southeast Asian bloc that includes Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines will hold exercises in the first week of September near Thailand, multiple Asian media outlets reported last week.

“It’s just diplomatic smoke signals and should not be taken beyond that, but even as a diplomatic smoke signal it has to be seriously by China,” said Alan Chong, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “So, I think China will take it seriously to be aware they haven’t quite cornered ASEAN as an ally.”

The Southeast Asian association that has a combined 630 million population and is better known as just ASEAN conducted naval exercises with China in October 2018.

China and the United States want greater sway over Southeast Asia, a giant region where governments generally avoid picking sides. Southeast Asian nations look to both, but especially China, for economic ties and increasingly to the United States for security as China pressures some of the countries over their maritime sovereignty claims.

Exercises with China, then the US

ASEAN-U.S. exercises will bring in at least eight ships plus aircraft to a naval base in Chonburi province of Thailand, the Bangkok Post online reported August 22. Their activities will reach Vietnam's southernmost province, Ca Mau, it said.

The U.S. Navy’s seventh fleet will lead the exercises, to be centered in the Gulf of Thailand Sept. 2-6, Southeast Asian news outlet BenarNews.org said a day later. 

Participants will probably do “low-intensity” work such as responding to mock accidents and making rescues, said Collin Koh, maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Navies from China and ASEAN countries did their first joint maritime exercise in the southern province of Guangdong last October to practice searches and rescues as well as responses to any unplanned encounters, Beijing’s state-run news website Chinadaily.com reported.

Beijing’s overture to Southeast Asia

Activities with China were aimed at easing safety risks in the South China Sea, the most heavily contested waterway in Asia, and assuaging any fear in Southeast Asia of Beijing’s dominant military role in that dispute, analysts told VOA at the time. 

ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines contest parts of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea with China. China claims about 90% of the resource-laden waterway, which stretches from Hong Kong to Borneo. 

China has alarmed the other countries since 2010 by landfilling small islets for military use, but in 2017 it began negotiating with ASEAN on a code of conduct aimed at preventing mishaps.

Beijing often chastises other countries including the United States for getting involved in the South China Sea dispute, which it says should be handled within the region. Washington claims no part of the South China Sea but opposes China’s dominance there.

Inclusivity and neutrality

To China’s chagrin, the Philippines is stepping up annual drills with the U.S. Navy, and in March a U.S. aircraft carrier visited Vietnam. By exercising with the United States next month, ASEAN will show China that its event with last year implies no longer-term commitment, experts say. 

“I would suppose that these exercises are also meant to highlight that there shouldn’t be a policy of exclusivity when it comes to promoting defense and security engagement with external parties,” Koh said. ASEAN might hold exercises someday with countries other than China or the United States, he said.

“So, I think the idea is to just simply highlight an inclusivity concept, not an exclusivity one that is being proposed by China,” Koh said.

Rival powers

The United States, China’s former Cold War foe and a modern-day economic rival, began increasing the number of ship passages through the South China Sea in 2017 under U.S. President Donald Trump. U.S. national security adviser John Bolton last week accused China of “coercion” for sending an oil survey vessel into waters claimed by Malaysia and Vietnam. 

China’s survey vessel has alarmed Vietnam in particular, sparking a more than two-month standoff at sea. Vietnam confirmed last week it would join the ASEAN-U.S. activities next month.

“Vietnam’s participation in the (U.S.) exercise is an indicator of Vietnam wanting to be closer with the U.S. given the context of the standoff in the South China Sea,” said Trung Nguyen, international relations dean at Ho Chi Minh University of Social Sciences and Humanities.

The United States operates the world’s strongest military compared to China at No. 3.