June 15, 2023
JAKARTA – ASEAN is in the vortex of renewed maritime activity. After some bickering with China over the South China Sea, the bloc is now the subject of interest by friendly navies in the region.
While ASEAN remains cautious about AUKUS and is analyzing the Quad approach toward the grouping, its members are not hesitating to work with non-Chinese partners in maritime exercises.
The June 6 trilateral coast guard exercises that the Philippines held with Japan and the United States, two members of the Quad, were unprecedented.
Earlier this month, with heightened tension between China and the US visible at the Shangri-La Dialogue, ASEAN’s fears about being caught in the big power rivalry were not assuaged. It prefers an inclusive multinational approach.
This, however, cannot be done at the ASEAN level because of differing positions. As the Philippines went along with two Quad partners, Indonesia held its fourth Komodo multilateral naval exercise (MNEK) in the seas around Makassar in South Sulawesi.
About 2,500 military personnel from 36 countries joined Indonesia for the Komodo exercise, which has been organized since 2014. This year’s edition is the first post-pandemic, involving 25 naval vessels, including those from Quad countries Australia, India and the US. Italy, China, Russia and Pakistan also participated, so did five other ASEAN countries, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
The largest contingent was naturally from the Indonesian Navy. Its eight warships were joined by three from Russia and two each from Singapore, Malaysia and China. One ship each was deployed by India, Australia, Italy, the Philippines, Thailand, the US, Vietnam and Pakistan. Naval air assets were deployed by the US, Russia and the Philippines, besides 10 aircraft deployed by the host country.
Cambodia and Brunei joined the exercise without naval assets. That left Laos as the only ASEAN country to pass it up, since Myanmar was not invited by Indonesia.
The MNEK focused on military operations other than war (MOOTW). These essentially look at using military assets to perform humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), search and rescue and maritime security. They mainly deal with non-traditional threats.
It is to the credit of Indonesia that at this divided time, it managed to get China, Russia and Quad countries to participate in the same exercise.
The Komodo exercise seeks implementation of the ASEAN disaster management and emergency response given that natural disasters strike the region periodically. It is different from the Malabar exercise or the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise, which involve war games and naval drills, including beach landings.
The Jakarta Post in an editorial pointed out that the use of military assets for HADR may seem “overkill”. Actually, it allows diverse participants to work together to achieve joint action against non-traditional threats. Thus, not only were China and Russia present along with the US, the United Kingdom, Australia and Japan, but also with the navies of ASEAN countries that have been in dispute with China over territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Indonesia itself continues to have a problem with China on its exclusive economic zone around the Natuna Sea.
Alongside this exercise, the Indonesian Navy held the fifth international maritime security symposium focusing on dealing with disasters in the region. Coordinated and collective responses in disaster emergencies and how to deal with sustainable development and the blue economy post-pandemic. This shows the clear intent with which Indonesia approaches these efforts.
This year, Indonesia and the US will continue the tradition of hosting the Super Garuda Shield exercise with 20 countries, which is again a multinational exercise, but where military tactics, advanced equipment and interoperability among friendly forces are pursued.
Thus, while on the one hand Indonesia continues to pursue Komodo and Super Garuda Shield as a demonstration of an inclusive effort, there is greater flexibility in dealing with other navies. India for instance, held its first ever ASEAN-India maritime exercise in May and thereafter, the ships of the Indian Navy proceeded for joint exercises with individual ASEAN countries and made port visits to several of them.
Similarly, navies that participated in Komodo used the occasion of their visit to the South China Sea to visit other ASEAN countries during their voyage.
ASEAN has held joint maritime exercises with China, Russia, the US and India over the last four years. For the first time, it will now hold its own ASEAN military exercise in September as announced by Indonesian Military (TNI) commander Adm. Yudo Margono.
ASEAN military chiefs recently held a dialogue in Bali and decided that the ASEAN military exercise will be held in the North Natuna Sea off Indonesia. According to Yudo, the joint exercise will focus on ASEAN responsibilities, but will not involve naval combat exercises. Nevertheless, it proves that ASEAN is now ready to pursue its centrality, including through military exercises.
This follows the mid-year ASEAN Summit under Indonesia’s chairmanship, held in Labuan Bajo in May. It emphasized efforts to reach a code of conduct on the South China Sea with China, expeditiously after a two-decade hiatus. Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said during its chairmanship that Indonesia would like to host several rounds of negotiations on the code of conduct so that a substantive, effective and actionable code can emerge.
However, an Indonesian Foreign Ministry official has been quoted as saying that ASEAN is not a party to bilateral territorial disputes that individual member states have with China. There is speculation that the code will perhaps not resolve the territorial disputes, but focus on “maritime matters”, a loosely drawn term.
It is evident that ASEAN is more concerned with the big power rivalry in its region than with China’s assertiveness. The bloc wants to pursue an inclusive policy where China and the Quad are together in the region, as in the East Asia Summit.
Individual ASEAN countries are pulling differently and engaging with Quad members for defense engagement as well as with middle powers. China is not the preferred partner in the security and defense community of ASEAN but the exercise specifically avoids the South China Sea to keep Chinese irritation to a minimum.
The writer is a former Indian ambassador to Indonesia, ASEAN, Germany and the African Union.