The United States has launched its first-ever joint naval drills with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), maneuvers that could add fuel to already simmering tensions in the contested South China Sea.

While organizers of this week’s 11-nation sea exercises all say that the drills are not overtly directed at China, they will nonetheless send a clear message that the US remains committed to keeping the strategic region’s crucial sea-lanes open.

The inaugural ASEAN-US Maritime Exercise, (AUMX) covers a vast sea area stretching from Thailand’s Sattahip naval base to Vietnam’s Gulf of Tonkin and Cape Cà Mau and down to Singapore, a global maritime hub where American Littoral Combat Ships (LTC) are permanently based.

As many as 1,260 military personnel, eight warships, and four aircraft from 11 nations are scheduled to participate in the inaugural drills. They will form a combined task force (CTF) for organizing for the current and possible future naval drills in the South China Sea.

The drills come at a time when China and Vietnam are locked in a weeks-long standoff at the energy-rich Vanguard Bank and Philippine defense officials publicly complain about Chinese “bullying” in its claimed sea areas.

The Liaoning carrier group with destroyers and frigates during a naval exercise in the western Pacific. Photo: AFP
China’s Liaoning carrier group with destroyers and frigates during a naval exercise in the western Pacific in 2018. Photo: AFP

They also come amid recent reports that Cambodia has granted China a 30-year exclusive access agreement to its Ream Naval Base on the Gulf of Thailand, a potential strategic game-changer as it would give Beijing a new southern flank in the South China Sea.

Though Cambodia has denied the report, first broke in the Wall Street Journal, the news has raised antenna in both neighboring Thailand and Vietnam. Cambodia, which has served as China’s proxy to block measures in ASEAN in recent years, is a participant in the AUMX.

Both the US and ASEAN have been adamant that the multilateral maneuvers are not directed at China, nor do they represent an American effort to contain China’s sea ambitions by assembling a countervailing regional coalition.

Rather, the drills are part of ASEAN’s long-term effort to deepen multilateral engagement with all major powers, including both the US and China, while reasserting its strategic autonomy by diversifying its engagements.

China has held at least three major naval drills with Southeast Asian countries since 2018.

Those included simulated naval drills last August in Singapore as well as the inaugural ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise drills staged in the southern Chinese city of Zhanjiang last October.

This year, China and several Southeast Asian nations participated in a Joint Maritime Drill in Qingdao, China, coinciding with the People’s Liberation Army’s 70th founding anniversary.

Vice-Admiral Shen Jinlong, commander of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy, promoted the exercises as part of Beijing’s vision of “building a maritime community with a shared future” with Southeast Asian nations.

While ASEAN states have outwardly welcomed naval cooperation with China, many in the bloc still fret about Beijing’s rising assertiveness in the South China Sea. China claims 90% of the waterway in its so-called nine-dash line map.

South China Sea-Map-Benham Rise-Map-2017

During recent ASEAN-China negotiations for a Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea, certain regional states were reportedly incensed by China’s demand for a de facto veto over ASEAN states’ prerogative to “hold joint military exercises with countries from outside the region, unless the parties concerned are notified beforehand and express no objection.”

Enter the AUMX. The drills’ ultimate aim is to enhance regional states’ strategic space as well as enmesh major powers in an ASEAN-shaped regional security architecture, where multilateralism and dialogue are the paramount operating principles, ASEAN organizers say.

The AUMX is being co-led by the US Pentagon and Royal Thai Navy, as Thailand is this year’s ASEAN rotational chairman. Vice Admiral Charoenpol Kumrasee, chief-of-staff of the Royal Thai Fleet, and Rear Admiral Kenneth Whitesell, deputy commander of the US Indo-Pacific Fleet, are overseeing the event.

The Thai naval chief said the exercises aim “to train regional navies in delivering humanitarian assistance and mitigating disasters.” His American counterpart said the “exercise is critical”, because it enhances “the understanding of how we are going to operate together.”

The Pentagon deployed the USS Montgomery littoral combat ship, USS Wayne E Meyer guided-missile destroyer, P-8 Poseidon aircraft, and three MH-60 helicopters to the exercise.

ASEAN states deployed the KDB Ramon Alcaraz (Philippines), the KDB Darulaman offshore patrol vessel (Brunei), the UMS Kyan Sittha frigate (Myanmar), the RSS Tenacious frigate (Singapore) and the HTMS Krabi (Thailand).

Philippine navy and marine soldiers before sending off for the joint US-ASEAN naval exercises, September 2019. Photo: Twitter

Collin Koh, a regional security expert, believes that the drills will be more symbolic than controversial, as they will cover issues related to communications, medical evacuation, search and rescue, helicopter cross-deck training, humanitarian assistance and disaster-relief operations.

These type of US joint exercises aren’t altogether new: America has conducted regularly multilateral maritime drills with Southeast Asian countries for decades under the Southeast Asia Cooperation Training (SEACAT) and Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) platforms.

It has also conducted bilateral and mini-lateral naval exercises with regional allies such as the Philippines and Thailand, as well as strategic partners like Singapore and Vietnam. This week’s event, however, represents the first time that the US has held naval drills with all of ASEAN.

In its recently released Indo-Pacific Strategy paper, the US Pentagon said that it is “prioritizing new relationships” in ASEAN, especially “key players” such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam, which the report said are “central in our efforts to ensure peace and underwrite prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.”

These ASEAN countries, the Pentagon maintains, “represent engines of economic growth that are strategically located on key sea lanes between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.”

Though they aren’t explicit US allies, they are “aligned with the region’s shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific and are focused on maintaining peace, stability, and prosperous economic development in the region,” it said.

(L to R) the HTMS Krabi, USS Montgomery, RSS Tenacious, UMS Kyan Sittha, BRP Ramone Alcaraz, KDB Darulamen, and Vietnam Corvette 18 at AUMX. Photo: US Navy

Despite the diplomatic language, the drills send a unified message to China just weeks after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lambasted China’s “coercion” in the South China Sea at the ASEAN’s Foreign Ministers Meeting in Bangkok.

“AUMX builds greater maritime security on the strength of ASEAN, the strength of our navy-to-navy bonds, and the strength of our shared belief in a free and open Indo-Pacific,” said US Rear Admiral Joey Tynch, who oversees the Indo-Pacific US Navy’s security cooperation region.

“The challenges we face in the maritime domain extend beyond what any single nation can handle, and that’s where partners and allies are force multipliers for peace and interoperability. That’s an unparalleled advantage that no competitor or rival can match. I fully believe we are stronger when we sail together,” he added.