Tipping the balance: ASEAN manages maritime drills with both the US and China

SATTAHIP, Thailand (Sept. 2, 2019) - U.S. Navy Sailors and maritime forces of ASEAN member states salute while standing in formation together during the opening ceremony for the ASEAN-U.S. Maritime Exercise (AUMX) at Sattahip Naval Base. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Greg Johnson)

With more joint maritime drills with the US and China, ASEAN nations may find themselves financially stretched. However, the strategic benefits may outweigh the financial injections.

By Joelyn Chan

The first ASEAN-US Maritime Exercise (AUMX) took place in the first week of September. It marked another milestone for the regional bloc as it is the result of efforts to deepen engagement with US. But the cherry on the cake was the decision to hold the operation in the controversial South China Sea (SCS).

The training was a subtle move to beef up the US presence in the SCS amidst China’s attempt to claim disputed territories. Without the US’ presence, ASEAN nations would otherwise be unable to pull off a military exercise in the SCS without provoking China.

ASEAN nations have been receptive to US military cooperation

ASEAN is often caught in between both superpowers – US and China. The regional bloc cannot afford to take sides.

When Singapore held the rotating chairmanship in 2018, Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen mentioned that both superpowers had proposed holding military exercises with the bloc. ASEAN has waited two and three years respectively for exercises with China and the US.

190905-N-CN315-1536 CHANGI NAVAL BASE, Singapore (September 06, 2019) U.S. Navy Sailors and representatives of ASEAN member state maritime forces gather for a photo during the ASEAN-U.S. Maritime Exercise (AUMX). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jimmy Ong)

In October 2018, ASEAN and China engaged in a six-day maritime exercise. Although both exercises are beneficial to ASEAN, they vary in their objectives. The ASEAN-China exercise was limited to search and rescue and disaster recovery capabilities. The US exercise was broader and included all ASEAN nations. The ASEAN-US exercise seemed better positioned to meet the demands of escalating maritime tensions in the South China Sea.  

Military expenditure is set to increase in ASEAN

During both maritime drills, representatives of ASEAN nations expressed hopes for more exercises in the future. However, it is costly to purchase and maintain military vessels. For instance, the cost of a Type 054A frigate was about US$348 million in 2015. The Type 054A frigate was one of the vessels involved in ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise 2018.

As more drills take place, military expenditure is expected to increase too. Singapore, Brunei, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam participated in the 2018 ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise. Compared to 2017, only Brunei and Malaysia decreased their military expenditure. Every other nation increased its military spending.

Maritime drills strengthen bilateral relations

While there are no estimates on the amount spent on the military exercises, the intangible benefits should not be left out. AUMX and ASEAN-China Maritime exercises strengthen bilateral relations. The exercises encourage more communication, understanding and cooperation between the bloc and its strategic partners.  

AUMX and ASEAN-China maritime drills are an investment in regional maritime stability. The value of having such a platform for engagement should not be underestimated. Greater camaraderie, a better understanding of China’s military capabilities, and deeper engagement with the US are more than ample justifications for modest increases in defence spending.