In the midst of escalating geopolitical tensions between major powers and protests against China’s activities in the South China Sea, ASEAN military units started their first-ever combined military exercises in Indonesia’s South Natuna Sea.
The Indonesian military said in a statement that the five-day non-combat operation aims to improve military capabilities, such as marine security and patrols, the distribution of humanitarian aid, and disaster relief.
The exercise will be participated in by all 10 ASEAN nations, including East Timor, a potential new member.
“This is not a combat operation because ASEAN is more focused on economics. The training is more about social activities,” Yudo Margono, Indonesia’s military chief, told reporters after the opening ceremony on the Indonesian island of Batam on Tuesday.
The drills are taking place in the midst of international complaints over China’s release of its “10-dash line” map last month, which increases its claims to span roughly 90% of the South China Sea. The drills had to be moved due to the sensitivity of the original location. The crucial maritime region sees more than $3 trillion worth of trade annually.
The South China Sea’s southernmost waters, which Beijing also claims, were initially intended for the exercises.
China’s map was rejected by the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam, which labelled it as being without merit. Malaysia additionally lodged a same diplomatic protest.
Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos stated that his nation did not seek conflict in the South China Sea but had a responsibility to “meet any challenge to our sovereignty” at the 43rd ASEAN Summit earlier this month in Jakarta.
The Philippines denounced China’s coast guard earlier this month for intimidating ships bringing supplies to Philippine troops stationed on an uninhabited atoll in the contested Spratley Islands in the South China Sea.
For more than 20 years, ASEAN has been debating a code of conduct for the South China Sea, but little has been accomplished.
The Philippines and a few other ASEAN nations have grown impatient with the code’s lack of advancement.
Indonesia’s Margono underlined that the drills this week were non-combat in nature when asked about the escalating geopolitical concerns.
(With agency inputs)