Will ASEAN navies’ planned exercise serve as a response to China’s assertiveness in South China Sea?

In September, ASEAN countries are planning to hold the first-ever joint naval exercise in the Natuna Sea which is an extended part of the South China Sea even though Myanmar and Cambodia have not yet given their assent to participation in the joint drills as they fear the move could rile China, the East Asian country that lays claims over 90% area of this waterbody of the Western Pacific Ocean.


Indonesia, the current chair of ASEAN, said the joint exercise would be held in the Natuna Sea, which is the southernmost part of the disputed South China Sea, on September 18-25 despite reluctance from Myanmar and Cambodia which relies heavily on China for aid and investment.


In fact, before taking this crucial decision, Indonesian military Chief Yudo Margono said that last month, a meeting of defence chiefs of ASEAN countries was held in Bali to finalise their plans for the first military drills in the Natuna Sea which lies in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone but also falls within the South China Sea.


That means the decision to hold joint ASEAN navies’ drill in the waterbody of the Western Pacific Ocean has not been taken suddenly. It also underscores countries like Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Brunei’s boldness to call spade a spade. These countries equally lay their sovereign claims over the waterbody of the South China Sea.


“ASEAN nations have taken part in naval exercises before with other countries— including both the United States and China---but the September drill would be the first involving just the bloc and are being read by many as a signal to China,” The Washington Post said in its report on June 20.


In the recent past, China has intensified the presence of vessels and fishing boats in the South China Sea and they keeping objecting to activities like fishing, gas and oil drilling undertaken by Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia even in their respective special economic zones.


Chinese vessel Xiang Yang Hong and its escort left Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZs) in South China Sea on June 5, almost a month after Vietnam’s protests.


On May 10, in his opening remarks at the 42nd ASEAN Summit in Labuan Bajo in Indonesia, Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh said, “Chinese naval coast guard--maritime militia activity in the South China Sea is a common concern and even non-ASEAN countries who promote maritime cooperation aimed at enhancing trust, friendship and confidence can be at the receiving end of Chinese operations.”


Upset with China’s continued aggressive actions in the South China Sea, the Philippines Coast Guard (PCG) set up five navigational buoys carrying the national flag from May 10 to 12 in five areas within its 200-mile (322-km) EEZ in the Sea to assert its sovereignty. Between April 18 and April 24, the Philippines underwent an agonizing moment after more than 100 Chinese militia marine vessels were seen in the country’s EEZ.


In April, a Philippine patrol vessel, carrying journalists, had a near-miss collision with a Chinese coast guard ship in the South China Sea, said AFP.

Earlier in March, a PLA Navy vessel along with a China Coast Guard vessel and 42 suspected maritime militia vessels anchored within 4.5 to 8 nautical miles of the Philippines shore, Radio Free Asia said.

On February 6, a Chinese coast guard ship used a military-grade laser at a Philippine patrol boat crew member and temporarily blinded them in an attempt to force them to retreat from Thomas Shoal, known as Ayungin in the Philippines.

Apart from flashing laser light twice, the Chinese coast guard ship also made “dangerous manoeuvres” about 137-metre from the Filipino ship’s starboard side, BBC quoted the Filipino coast guard officials as saying.


Since Ferdinand Marcos Jr assumed presidential office in June last year, the Philippines has filed more than 77 diplomatic protests against China’s actions in the South China Sea, Radio Free Asia said.

But China has been nonchalant in its military aggression against sovereign interests of its Southeast Asian neighbours in the South China Sea. In 2016, China rejected The Haguebased international tribunal’s order favouring the Philippines over Beijing’s claim of Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. In 2012, China captured Scarborough Shoal which is in the Philippines’ EEZ but hundreds of miles from the Chinese coast.


When US Democratic Senator Ben Cardin recently said “What China is doing is against international law” and “we have got to stand up to China’s bullishness,” Beijing responded by saying that “these actions are completely justified and lawful, and have nothing to do with bullishness.”


Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin was rather harsh in his response to Ben Cardin’s statement. He said, “When it comes to safeguarding China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, there is no room for China to concede or back down. This is absolutely not a case of bullishness or intimidation. This is about standing up for principles and China’s red line.”


In effect, this is seen as a steadfast defence of undefendable China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. Indonesia, which has spearheaded a move for ASEAN joint navy drills, has been itself a victim to continued Chinese harassment in the North Natuna Sea whenever it undertakes exploration of oil and gas reserves.


In January 2023, Indonesia had to send a warship to the area to monitor a lingering Chinese coast guard vessel. Natuna lies within Indonesia’s EEZ and since its waters overlap with the area in the South China Sea, Beijing claims that Natuna is a part of its “nine-dash line.”

In the Southeast Asian region, Malaysia has been China’s largest trading partner for 14 consecutive years, with bilateral trade between the two reaching $203.6 billion in 2022, yet Beijing keeps pressurising Kuala Lumpur from stopping activities even in its EEZ of the South China Sea.


In April, Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim made his first official visit to China with intention to further deepen relations with Beijing. He found himself at the receiving end of Chinese officials in Beijing as they questioned Malaysian energy company Petronas’ exploration activity in the Kasawari gas field located within the country’s EEZ and about 200 km off the coast of its Sarawak state.


To put the record straight, Malaysia issued a statement on April 8 over its stand on the South China Sea. “Malaysia’s position on the South China Sea is consistent and remains unchanged. The Government of Malaysia is unequivocally and firmly committed to protecting Malaysia’s sovereignty, sovereign rights, and interests in its maritime areas in the South China Sea, as depicted by our 1979 Map,” Malaysia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in its statement.


These developments clearly suggest China's neighbours from the ASEAN bloc are not happy with the world’s second largest economic and military power. Amid regular frictions in the South China Sea, ASEAN nations have been pushing Beijing for years to complete negotiations on maritime code of conduct for the Sea.


However, China has so far not given any firm commitment over this, except for offering a contrived lip service. During his recent visit to Indonesia, China’s new Foreign Minister Qin Gang said Beijing will intensify negotiations on the Code of Conduct this year. But given the past track record of progress over the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, it does not appear that issues surrounding the maritime code will be resolved so soon. ASEAN countries are apparently aware of this truth. But would the planned drills by navies of ASEAN countries serve as a signal to China that now enough is enough. Indo-Pacific countries are in an unstable situation in relation to China and Europe's support, as well as a consistent, strong stance towards China is much needed.