To Offset US and China, ASEAN Holds First Members-Only Naval Drill

Courtesy Indonesian Navy

Published Sep 19, 2023 9:47 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Tuesday, members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) launched their first-ever naval drill, with five warships conducting a transit from Batam to the Natuna Islands - an area with significant symbolism for regional maritime tensions with China.

Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore have all contributed vessels for the exercise, which will have a peaceful "non-combat" focus. The naval drills will center on joint patrols, search and rescue, and disaster relief scenarios, according to the Indonesian military. 

The ASEAN member nations do not have a mutual defense treaty, and have never held a members-only military exercise before. The first-of-a-kind naval drills are widely seen as an assertion of regional independence and unity, counterbalancing the headline-grabbing standoff between China and the United States in the South China Sea.

While peaceful in orientation, the exercise's location sends a clear message. The main operating area will be in the Natuna Islands, located at the southern edge of the South China Sea. The area has been a flash point for confrontation with the Chinese fishing fleet in years past. In one well-publicized incident in 2016, Indonesian forces attempted to detain a Chinese vessel for illegal fishing in the area, and a China Coast Guard cutter intervened, prompting a standoff. In 2020, continued Chinese fishing incursions prompted Indonesia to deploy a naval task force to the Natuna Islands.  

Indonesia and China have also faced off over energy resources in the area. The Tuna offshore E&P block, located near the intersection of the Indonesian, Vietnamese and Malaysian EEZ boundaries, falls just inside the vast area that China claims under its "nine-dash line" policy. 

According to the AP, the first area selected for the exercise was at the northern end of the island group, nearest to China's "nine-dash line" claim. After reports of opposition from other ASEAN member states, including the China-aligned government of Cambodia, Indonesia opted to relocate the drills to the south end of the Natuna Islands, an area which will be less diplomatically sensitive. 

Far to the north, a far larger and less benign exercise was getting under way at about the same time. On Monday, China deployed 103 military aircraft and nine warships to the waters around Taiwan, according to the government in Taipei. It was the largest practice deployment of PLA Navy and PLA Air Force assets around Taiwan on record. In addition to these drills, the Chinese carrier Shandong was operating in the Philippine Sea, launching fighter aircraft in waters near the Philippines.