The United States and a group of 10 Southeast Asian nations are preparing for their first military exercises.
Asian media reported last week on the exercises between the U.S. military and forces from members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). They are expected to begin in the first week of September near Thailand. They come almost a year since ASEAN forces carried out naval exercises with China.
Alan Chong is an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. Commenting on the upcoming exercises, he said “I think China will take it seriously to be aware that they haven’t quite cornered ASEAN as an ally.”
China and the United States are seeking greater influence in Southeast Asia. The area is home to 630 million people and has many fast-growing economies.
In Southeast Asia, governments have avoided choosing sides between China and the U.S. Yet many of those countries are developing stronger economic ties with China while looking to the U.S. government for security.
Several nations with claims to territory in the South China Sea are concerned about pressure from China, which claims almost all of the waterway.
The ASEAN-U.S. military exercises are expected to mainly take place in the Gulf of Thailand, from September second to the sixth. The BenarNews.org website reported that the U.S. Navy’s seventh fleet will lead the operation.
The Bangkok Post reported last week that at least eight ships and aircraft will travel to a naval base in the Thai province of Chonburi for the exercises. The training is expected to reach Vietnam’s southernmost province of Ca Mau.
Collin Koh is a security expert at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He said the exercises are likely to include “low-intensity” work, such as how military forces react to accidents and rescues.
China’s official news media said that the exercises with ASEAN last year involved search and rescue training, and dealing with unplanned contacts at sea.
Efforts to ease tensions
Experts told VOA last year that ASEAN’s training with China was mainly aimed at reducing safety risks in the South China Sea.
ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines contest parts of the sea with China, which claims about 90 percent of the waterway. The area, which covers 3.5 million square kilometers, is believed to be rich in mineral resources as well as fisheries.
In recent years, China has raised concerns by building and expanding small islands for its military. In 2017, Chinese officials began new efforts to negotiate a code of conduct with ASEAN to prevent conflict.
China has criticized the U.S. government for its involvement in the South China Sea dispute, saying it is a regional issue. The U.S. has no territorial claims, but has pressed for freedom of navigation in the area. The sea is an extremely important waterway for world trade.
ASEAN increases activities
The Philippines is stepping up exercises with the U.S. Navy, while Vietnam received a visit from a U.S. aircraft carrier in March. Collin Koh said that he believes ASEAN may hold exercises with countries other than China and the U.S.
However, some of China’s activities remain troubling to ASEAN members. Last week, U.S. national security advisor John Bolton accused China of, in his words, “coercion” for sending an oil exploration ship into waters claimed by Malaysia and Vietnam.
The move concerned Vietnam, which confirmed it would take part in the exercises next month.
Trung Nguyen is with Ho Chi Minh University of Social Sciences and Humanities. Vietnam taking part in “the 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,” he said.
I’m Mario Ritter, Jr.
Words in This Story
aware – adj. to know that something exists
corner –v. to force into a place or position from which it is difficult to escape
contest – v. to compete for; to dispute
code of conduct – n. a set of rules on how to behave usually in order to avoid conflict
regional – adj. related to an area or part of a country or the world
coercion – n. to cause someone to do or accept something by threats or other actions against them
indicator – n. a sign that shows the condition something is in
standoff – n. a dispute or contest in which there is no winner