ASEAN Solidarity Exercise keeps US and China at a distance
Written by: (Contributed) on 1 October 2023
(Source: Ministry of Defence, Singapore)
The ASEAN Solidarity Exercise, a joint military drill, has provided further evidence of a growing reluctance by South-east Asian nations to get drawn into escalating US-China diplomatic hostilities.
There was, for example, no official US or China involvement.
While it will take time to assess the significance of the exercise, it is important to note the response as indicative of deeper problems and issues. It is highly relevant that the exercise took place with widespread publicity across the region. In Australia, the main hub for 'US interests' in the southern part of the region, however, there was near silence; a brief official media release from Canberra was terse in style and did not follow the stated ASEAN line but merely reiterated the standard US diplomatic position.
On 19 September ASEAN member countries began a five-day joint military exercise, ASEAN Solidarity Exercise, near Batan Island, adjacent to Singapore on the eastern approach to the Straits of Malacca, a sensitive maritime area with congested shipping-lanes. (1) The host country, Indonesia, chose the area for the drills due to it not being contested by China and its claim to sovereignty of the South China Seas. The exercise was initially planned for the southern edge of the South China Seas although it was relocated to not provoke a confrontation with China. (2)
Singapore is regarded by the US as highly strategic: it is placed on a straight line from US intelligence facilities of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, and Guam: the facilities have undergone extensive upgrading in recent years as part of US regional military and security provision, and rest upon an arc from base facilities at Pine Gap in Central Australia. Singapore is also situated approximately half way between Diego Garcia and Guam. (3)
Military personnel and their civilian counterparts working for US signals intelligence (Sigint) were, no doubt, working overtime throughout the ASEAN Solidarity Exercise, sitting silently focused on computer screens in numerous regional facilities.
While officially planned in June, there was very little publicity in western media outlets although widespread coverage across South-east Asian countries, highlighting a welcoming stance after years of escalating US-led diplomatic hostilities toward China as a serious competitor and rival to their traditional hegemonic positions. Stand-offs in the contested South China Seas have become common, as the US moves toward real-war scenarios.
Official ASEAN diplomatic positions were pragmatically stated along the lines that 'by uniting together, we can maintain stability in the region for the favour of the people … and the drills were … about ASEAN centrality'. (4) The softer style diplomacy has highlighted ASEAN's attempt to accommodate China as a major trading partner with trade agreements.
The response from Canberra, however, was both direct, but extremely limited; a 32-column centimetre news item explained the ASEAN Solidarity Exercise was, 'largely aimed at countering Beijing's muscular defence of its claims to the disputed water-way', with reference to the South China Seas. (5) Scant on details, the official Australian diplomatic position slavishly followed the recently implemented US-led Indo-Pacific Strategy. (6)
A recurring problem is that the US bases its foreign policy upon geo-strategic goals for control with neo-colonial designs and finance capital, whereas China's foreign policy is more trade-based and subtle. Played-out in the ASEAN example, the sub-region forms a significant part of the US first island chain running from the Kuril Islands in the north to Borneo in the south; during the past and present Cold War the island chains are regarded as a first line of defence, with reference for the defence and security of Taiwan. (see diagram)
China, by contrast, has regarded Borneo as an important centre for its part-financing of a huge $132 billion trade zone and manufacturing hub; China has provided a hydro-plant for electrification. (7) The US has responded to the whole matter with icy diplomatic silence.
China's financing of overseas facilities also tends to be extensive, with outlays for longer-term planning. Flows into Indonesia, for example, doubled to $3.2 billion in the 2021-22 period. (8) Behind a great deal of economic development planning across South-east Asia, however, there is concern that the rapid growth could unleash new social and political forces. The nature of the independence struggles of yesteryear waged against unwanted outside interference in their own and neighbouring countries, continues to shape a great deal of political thinking of later generations of leaders across the sub-region; they fear politicisation of the working class and small farmers due to exploitation by the corporate sector and big land-owners who wield enormous power and extensive influence.
It is interesting to note, therefore, that while the ASEAN drills were officially billed as non-combat exercises, some coverage revealed a photograph of a counter-insurgency operation exercise in jungle terrain with Indonesian soldiers from the 112th Infantry Battalion (9) Indonesia has a long history of highly repressive military operations designed to stifle any political opposition, including in Indonesian Papua and East Timor, which is now part of ASEAN.
A number of the ASEAN countries have opposition political groups which has led to involvement with US-led military personnel and their allies for training local military forces in counter-insurgency and counter-intelligence operations. Those countries associated with ASEAN through various regional forums and observer status, likewise, include some with highly questionable political, economic and social stability: Ski Lanka, Bangladesh, DPRK.
Inside ASEAN, the Philippines, for example, has had a long-time insurgency led by the Communist Party New People's Army. As the US remain highly unpopular in the country, Australian Special Forces have been used, in their place, for training Philippine counterparts in recent years.
Thailand, furthermore, witnessed serious political upheaval following economic planning for agricultural areas by the World Bank over twenty years ago. It unleashed new popularist social and political forces which shook the foundations of Thailand's electoral system and saw the military step into civil society. Controversy surrounding recent elections was merely a continuation of the massive political discord sweeping Thailand.
Elsewhere, Malaysian politics has remained bogged down by massive corruption scandals and political intrigue; the problem could easily spillover and destabilise one of the dominant diplomatic players in ASEAN, particularly amongst rival ethnic groupings.
In conclusion, the ASEAN Solidarity Exercise can best be viewed initially as a highly localised attempt to deflect unwanted US-China diplomatic rivalry, regarded as an obstacle to further and higher levels of economic development amongst member countries and their associates.
1. See: ASEAN holds war games amid regional tensions, Australian, 20 September 2023.
3. See: Peters Projection, World Map, Actual Size.
4. First ever ASEAN drills held, 21 September 202; and, ASEAN kicks off joint military exercise near Batan Island, The Diplomat, 19 September 2023; and, ASEAN kicks off, REUTERS, 19 September 2023.
5. Australian, op.cit., 20 September 2023.
6. See: The reasons behind Washington's push for GSOMIA., Hankyoreh, 12 November 2019, which has provided a fully detailed account of the US Indo-Pacific Strategy.
7. China doubles investment, Benar News, 24 October 2022.
9. Star, op.cit., 21 September 2023.
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