Despite the ongoing disputes and tensions between China and the United States, they managed to set aside their differences and participate in the 'Komodo' naval drills hosted by Indonesia. These drills, which began on June 5, brought together the navies of various countries, including the United States, China, Britain, Japan, Russia, South Korea, India, Pakistan, and others.
The Indonesian navy emphasized that the purpose of the Komodo drills was to strengthen relationships between the navies of 36 participating nations. It was considered a non-war exercise focused on disaster response and humanitarian operations. Interestingly, the drills provided an opportunity for representatives from China and the United States to interact, which hadn't happened since August of the previous year.
The lack of contact between the two sides was evident during the recently hosted Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore when China refused to allow its defense minister, Li Shangfu, to meet with his US counterpart, Antony Blinken. Their interaction was limited to a mere handshake. However, the Komodo drills presented a chance for both navies to engage in joint activities and foster cooperation.
China deployed its latest Type 052D guided-missile destroyer, the Zhanjiang, and the Type 054A frigate Xuchang for the drills. These Chinese vessels focused on navigation research, duty officer training, and damage control en route to Indonesia. On the other hand, the United States did not officially disclose the names of its participating ships. Nevertheless, Vice Adm. Karl Thomas, commander of the US 7th Fleet, emphasized that cultivating relationships between navies through exercises, exchanges, conferences, and dialogues was crucial. He mentioned that such efforts build linkages that can endure the strain during times of adversity.
During the drills, the foreign ships anchored off Sulawesi, and their crew members were transported to land via ferry. The Indonesian navy went the extra mile in organizing icebreakers, city tours, concerts, medical training, and an international symposium on marine security for the visiting participants. After the shore activities, the soldiers returned to their boats to practice maritime interception, at-sea search and rescue, and damage control.
The Chinese Navy expressed its intention to take advantage of the opportunity to conduct military and cultural exchanges with foreign ships, aiming to deepen mutual understanding and practical cooperation further. However, while these drills showcased temporary cooperation, experts believe that they are unlikely to significantly reduce tensions between the United States and China.
The Komodo drills took place against the backdrop of simmering tensions between Beijing and Washington. In response to China's expanding influence in the region, the United States has been intensifying its military diplomacy by conducting more regular war drills with its friends and partners in areas near Taiwan, the South China Sea, and the western Pacific. This heightened military presence and support for Taiwan, including arms exports and high-level visits, have further strained the already fragile relationship between the two adversaries.
Despite these tensions, the Komodo drills served as a channel for cooperation where the two sides did not have to directly engage with each other. According to Miguel Miranda, a Philippines-based military analyst, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) maintains ties with both China and the United States, albeit imperfectly. The geographical space and important water passages within ASEAN mean that naval fleets from various countries regularly visit the region. Miranda points out that similar events, such as fleet reviews and naval exercises, take place in other countries like Singapore and Thailand, where diplomacy and military engagements intersect.
Some experts view the participation of China and the United States in the Komodo drills as a way to maintain cooperative linkages, despite the ongoing tensions. Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, believes that the higher political authorities on both sides see the merits of participating in drills held in a third country like Indonesia.
The timing of these drills is particularly intriguing. The tensions between the United States and China escalated recently, with a US military official accusing China of aggressive maneuvers in the South China Sea and blaming a Chinese warship for an unsafe interaction with a US destroyer and a Canadian frigate in the Taiwan Strait. China's Defense Minister, Li Shangfu, stressed that war with the United States would be an "unbearable disaster for the world" and emphasized the importance of improving ties, which are currently at a record low.
While the Komodo drills can be seen as one of many non-combat engagements between the two countries, their participation reflects a commitment from both sides to engage with a third-friendly country like Indonesia and maintain some level of cooperative interaction, even amidst occasional confrontation.