ASEAN is poised to make history with landmark joint military exercises in the South China Sea. The decision, announced by ASEAN chair Indonesia, comes at a time of rising tension and uncertainty in the region. The decision was announced by ASEAN chair Indonesia following a meeting of military commanders from the 10 ASEAN member states in Indonesia. The exercise will take place in the North Natuna Sea, the area closest to the South China Sea.
Scheduled for September, the joint military exercise aims to strengthen "ASEAN centrality," according to Admiral Yudo Margono, commander of the TNI. However, the exercise will not include combat operations. The main objective is to strengthen cooperation and unity among ASEAN members.
The South China Sea has long been a point of contention, with the United States and China vying for influence, and has tested ASEAN's unity in recent years.
Julius Widjojono, a spokesman for the Indonesian military, also stressed that the exercise was related to the high risk of disasters in Southeast Asia. With an annual trade value of about $3.5 trillion, the South China Sea is a very important trade route in the region. Therefore, it is imperative to enhance cooperation and preparedness in dealing with potential disasters.
This is also inextricably linked to China, which has increased its assertiveness in the South China Sea through the extensive deployment of coast guard vessels and fishing boats, extending its presence to 1,500 kilometers from its coastline. China's expansive claims, based on its historic "nine-dash line" map, were ruled legally baseless by an international arbitral tribunal in 2016.
ASEAN countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia also have conflicting territorial claims with China, which claims sovereignty over vast areas of sea, including parts of Indonesia's exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
On the other hand, ASEAN has long pushed for a maritime code of conduct with China, and some of its member states have had disputes with Beijing. For example, Vietnam has criticized Chinese incursions near gas blocks in its EEZ, while the Philippines has denounced China's aggressive tactics and joint patrol plans with the United States. China, however, insists that coast guard operations in disputed waters are routine activities within its sovereign territory.
Therefore, ASEAN's joint military exercises in the South China Sea are expected to enhance regional cooperation, reduce tensions, and maintain stability and security in the region.