ASEAN-US drills need not raise eyebrows

Source:Global Times Published: 2019/9/1 20:23:40

Photo: IC

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) kicks off its first joint military drill with the US in the Gulf of Thailand Monday. The five-day war games are not a result of Washington's whims but show the 10-nation bloc's propensity to strike a balance between great powers.

AASEAN carried out joint military exercises with China in Zhanjiang, South China's Guangdong Province, in October 2018. By conducting another drill with a country from outside the region, ASEAN wants to demonstrate that it does not rely on any single great power, nor takes sides.

China is ASEAN's neighbor, while the US is a country nowhere in the vicinity. Washington has been trying to deepen maritime cooperation with ASEAN by conducting the joint drill, making the Southeast Asian grouping as the core of US Indo-Pacific Strategy. As the hub connecting the Pacific and Indian Ocean, Asia and Oceania, Southeast Asia is crucial in geopolitics. Amid the rivalry with China, the US intends to use the drill to woo ASEAN, so as to counterbalance China's growing influence in the region.

But this may only be the US wishful thinking as ASEAN has its own consideration. Leaning closer to Washington is not in line with ASEAN's interests. ASEAN members have traditionally adhered to a balanced strategy between great powers. Any attempts at breaking away from such strategy will not be welcomed in Southeast Asia countries and may affect regional stability.

Washington will further engage with ASEAN members through providing assistance and promoting bilateral and multilateral cooperation. For example, to whip up the South China Sea issue, the US may encourage American companies to exploit oil and gas with ASEAN members such as Vietnam, in the region.

Some media outlets claimed that the reason for US-ASEAN joint naval exercises lies in that certain members of ASEAN which have territorial disputes with China, such as Vietnam and the Philippines, want to counter China's influence in the region.

Territorial disputes only exist between China and certain Southeast Asian countries, and do not include all ASEAN members. Defending the peace and stability of the region is a point of interest between China and ASEAN. Other countries, such as Myanmar and Cambodia would not harbor the view of countering China since they do not have territorial disputes with Beijing. 

Actually, ASEAN has maintained solid relations with China, especially in the economic sphere. China has been ASEAN's largest trading partner for over a decade. It was reported that bilateral trade with ASEAN members was about $600 billion in 2018, an increase of 14 percent from 2017. ASEAN became China's second-largest trading partner in the first half of 2019, leaving the US behind for the first time since 1997. China and ASEAN have also increased their cooperation in the domain of non-traditional security in recent years. For example, China has implemented several joint patrols with four riparian countries of the Mekong River, to enhance security for shipping along the river.

Compared with the US, China has more advantages in advancing ties with ASEAN in terms of geopolitics and traditions. The history of exchanges between China and Southeast Asian countries has been over 2,000 years. More cooperation between China and ASEAN will be witnessed in trade and economy, security and people-to-people exchanges under the framework of the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative.  

The article was compiled by Global Times reporter Lu Yuanzhi based on an interview with Xu Liping, director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

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