The Truth About China’s New South China Sea Drill Proposal with ASEAN
The littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) conducts routine patrols in international waters of the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands in May 2015.
Image Credit: Flickr/U.S. Pacific Fleet

The Truth About China’s New South China Sea Drill Proposal with ASEAN

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China used its inaugural meeting with ASEAN defense chiefs to propose a joint exercise in the South China Sea with Southeast Asian states, the Chinese foreign ministry confirmed Friday.

“The Chinese side and ASEAN countries will hold a joint training on the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea as well as a joint exercise for maritime search and disaster relief in 2016 in the South China Sea,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said October 16.

Few specifics were provided about the new drills beyond what Hua said, which was based off of Chinese defense minister Chang Wanquan’s remarks delivered at the first-ever ASEAN-China Defense Ministers’ Informal Meeting in Beijing (See: “China to Hold First Meeting with ASEAN Defense Ministers in Beijing”).

China would like for the moves to make it appear like a responsible actor in the South China Sea, quelling ASEAN fears of instability amid Beijing’s artificial-island building campaign there and restricting external intervention in the disputes as the United States moves closer towards conducting freedom of navigation operations near certain Chinese features (See: “How Would the US Challenge China in the South China Sea?”). As Hua put it, these were efforts “made to properly address disputes and manage risks.”

Yet there are a few things to keep in mind as the idea takes off. First, in general, this looks like yet another manifestation of China’s South China Sea strategy of “incremental assertiveness,” where small conciliatory gestures are periodically rolled out as part of a calibrated effort to offset far more destabilizing actions (See: “Will China Change its South China Sea Approach in 2015?”). For instance, even while proposing joint drills, China still looks set to continue its plan to build military facilities on its artificial islands, thereby violating the spirit of the non-militarization pledge that President Xi Jinping appeared to make during his recent visit to the United States as well as the letter of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea it signed back in 2002 (See: “Does ASEAN Have a South China Sea Position?”).

Second, joint drills in the South China Sea are not a new or uniquely Chinese idea. Indeed, it is notable that Beijing’s proposal has come after several countries including the United States and Japan have also been talking about exercises of various kinds around the area both amongst themselves as well as with individual ASEAN states (See for instance: “US-Japan Joint Patrols in the South China Sea?”). Similarly, Philippine officials had stressed that their first ever naval exercise with Japan, held in the South China Sea, was in fact a maritime safety exercise related to CUES, a protocol developed by western Pacific navies including China last year (See: “Japan, Philippines Hold First South China Sea Naval Exercises”). The joint drills proposal should therefore be seen as a reactive move designed to restrict increasing international involvement rather than a proactive one.

Third, the Chinese proposal is quite narrowly defined. Both Hua in the press conference and Chan in his actual remarks at the meeting were careful to clarify that it would only apply to maritime search and rescue and disaster relief. This is not insignificant. It only serves to reinforce the point I have made repeatedly that China’s defense ties with several ASEAN states, particularly those in maritime Southeast Asia– for all their advances – are still building up from a low base and still face challenges in progressing due to various challenges including the lack of trust.

In terms of joint exercises in particular, Beijing is only beginning to get its feet wet, even with ASEAN states it has traditionally been more comfortable with like Malaysia. For instance, as I reported previously, China and Malaysia just held their first-ever bilateral military exercise last year (See: “Malaysia, China Begin First Joint Military Exercise”). It therefore should come as no surprise that China’s proposal for joint drills in a sensitive area like the South China Sea would be limited in scope.

Fourth, it is far from clear how the reception to the Chinese proposal will evolve into next year and how the exercise itself will end up playing out. Close observers of ASEAN-China relations know that over the past three years alone, Beijing has made a long list of proposals to advance ties, from the “2 + 7 cooperation framework” to the “ten-point proposal”. Some of them have advanced with varying speeds while others have not gotten very far. Indeed, lost amid the sensationalist headlines was the fact that the new drills were proposed as part of a new five-point plan for advancing ASEAN-China security ties.

To be sure, there have been some ASEAN countries which have been receptive to such overtures in a manner that Beijing would be more comfortable with. For example, Indonesia’s defense minister Ryamizard Ryacudu reportedly proposed joint “peace patrols” between China and ASEAN states during a bilateral meeting with his Chinese counterpart. “If the countries who have interests in the South China Sea can calm tensions and are able to manage the conflict, there’s no need to involve other parties in resolving the dispute,” he was quoted as saying by Antara News.

But ASEAN is a diverse grouping, and other views may not be quite in line with what Beijing has in mind. A good illustration of this was the comment made by a Philippine senior naval commander to Reuters following the joint drill proposal. The commander suggested that the Philippines welcomes the proposal as an opportunity to verify that China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea truly have no military purpose. “It would be good if China will open its artificial islands, allow us to dock there and visit these islands,” he said. That is not the kind of receptiveness that Beijing has in mind from Southeast Asian states.

So as you read the headlines plastered all over news media outlets suggesting new drills, just remember that may in fact be a lot less to the proposal than meets the eye. It is not as new, as extensive and as revolutionary as some suggest. And even if it does eventually take off, there are still lots of questions about how it will be received, shaped and eventually executed.

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