JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — The Association of Southeast Asian Nations began its first joint naval exercise Tuesday at a time when several member countries are responding more forcefully to growing Chinese assertiveness in the area.
The non-combat exercises, called the ASEAN Solidarity Exercise, include joint maritime patrol operations, search and rescue operations, and humanitarian and disaster relief, Indonesian military chief Admiral Yudo Margono said.
He said the five-day exercise in Indonesia’s Natuna waters aims to boost military ties between ASEAN nations and improve interoperability. Civil groups involved in humanitarian aid and disaster prevention also participate in the drills.
ASEAN nations 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 China.
China’s “nine-dash line,” which it uses to demarcate its claim to most of the South China Sea, has led to tense clashes with rival claimants Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines, with fishing boats and military vessels Chinese increasingly aggressive in the disputed waters.
The line also overlaps with a section of Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone that extends 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 US-China rivalry, following meetings of ASEAN defense officials in Bali in June.
However, Indonesia, which holds the rotating ASEAN presidency this year, decided to move the exercises to the Southern Natuna Islands, away from the disputed area, apparently to avoid any reaction from Beijing.
China and ASEAN signed a non-binding agreement in 2002 that called on rival claimant nations to avoid aggressive actions that could trigger armed conflict, including the occupation of arid islets and reefs, but violations have persisted.
China has come under intense 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 any exploration or activity in that area must not violate the territory of the state,” Margono said after an opening ceremony for the exercise attended by ASEAN military leaders on the island of Batam, next to Singapore. “That 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 territorial claims in the South China Sea, Margono responded: “We have had a firm stance.”
He told reporters that ASEAN agreed to hold military exercises annually. In the future, they will be expanded to full war exercises involving the army, navy and air force, he said.
Indonesia and China enjoy generally positive ties, but Jakarta has expressed concern over what it sees as a Chinese encroachment on its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea. Increased activities by Chinese coast guard vessels and fishing boats in the area have made Jakarta nervous, prompting its navy to conduct a large drill in July 2020 in waters around Natuna.
Despite its official position as a non-claimant state in the South China Sea, Indonesia renamed part of it the North Natuna Sea in 2017 to underline its claim that the area, which includes natural gas fields, is part of its exclusive economic zone. Similarly, 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 concern over China’s transformation of seven disputed reefs into artificial islands, including three with airstrips, that now look like small cities armed with weapons systems.
Two ASEAN members, Cambodia and Laos, both allies of China, have opposed the use of strong language against Beijing in disputes.