ASEAN’s First Naval Exercise in Perspective

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ASEAN’s First Naval Exercise in Perspective

A closer look at the broader context as the grouping is set to hold its inaugural multilateral naval exercise.

ASEAN’s First Naval Exercise in Perspective

A US vessel preparing for Exercise Komodo 2016.

Credit: US Pacific Fleet Photo

We are heading into a busy next few days for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), with the usual set of meetings for the grouping coupled with a number of other engagements tied to the 50th anniversary of its founding hosted by the Philippines. On the defense side, one of the highlights in this regard will be the holding of the first-ever ASEAN multilateral naval exercise. As the grouping gears up for this, it is worth taking a closer look at the broader context for this engagement.

Though the early evolution of ASEAN focused mostly on economic issues, the grouping has increasingly been dealing with defense issues as well. The most oft-cited examples of this are the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM), which has been held annually among Southeast Asian states themselves since 2006, and the ADMM-Plus, a newer, expanded biennial version held since 2011 which groups ASEAN members with the United States, China, Australia, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, and Russia (See: “What Did the ASEAN Defense Meetings in the Philippines Achieve?”).

But there are other forums as well that tend to be glossed over by outside observers but are nonetheless important in the context of regional security cooperation. This includes the gathering of the chiefs of ASEAN police forces (ASEANAPOL), ASEAN chiefs of defense forces (ACDFIM) and the ASEAN navy chiefs (ANCM).

The ANCM is usually used to discuss and advance initiatives that promote confidence-building between navies through dialogue, exchanges, and the sharing of experiences. The last iteration of the ANCM, hosted by Malaysia last year, was held under theme of enhancing operational interoperability. In this similar spirit, at the 8th ASEAN Navy Chiefs’ Meeting (ANCM) in August 2014 in Bangkok, Southeast Asian states had agreed to designate the Royal Thai Navy (RTN) to host an International Fleet Review as part of the planning for ASEAN commemorative activities for the 50th anniversary.

As of now, three events are set to be held under the broader banner of this International Fleet Review (IFR) to commemorate ASEAN’s 50th anniversary: the IFR itself, which will be a review of navy ships invited from across the world; the 11th ANCM; and the 1st ASEAN Multilateral Naval Exercise (AMNEX). The events are set to take place from November 13 to 22 in Pattaya in Chon Buri Province and other nearby destinations in the northern part of the Gulf of Thailand.

The events will take place amid a rather sobering picture in the maritime domain. The sea lanes are critical to the security and prosperity of Southeast Asian nations, and significant challenges remain to be addressed there, including maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea; maritime terrorism, a host of other transnational challenges including piracy, sea robbery, and climate change, and lingering distrust among nations that has helped fuel the buildup of some of their capabilities despite the limitations they face(See: “Will a China-ASEAN South China Sea Code of Conduct Really Matter?”).

Though there are no doubt instances where greater collaboration has been forged, be it ongoing operationalization of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) or the trilateral patrols reached between Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, the overall situation is far from comforting (See: “Confronting Threats in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas: Opportunities and Challenges”).

With respect to AMNEX, it is true that Southeast Asian states already occasionally participate in bilateral and wider regional multilateral naval exercises, from KOMODO, which began in Indonesia in 2014, to drills which were integrated into the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace (LIMA) exhibition for the first time in 2015, to the exercises held under the maritime security Experts Working Group (of which there are now seven) within the ADMM-Plus which rotates over time (See: “What’s Next for Malaysia’s China Warships Deal?”).

But AMNEX is no doubt a significant development as it constitutes the first-ever multilateral naval exercise conducted by Southeast Asian states alone among themselves. Held on and around Sattahip Naval Base in the northern part of the Gulf of Thailand, it will follow standard operating procedures previously approved during the 9th ASEAN Navy Chiefs’ Meeting held in Myanmar.

The exercise is scheduled to have its harbor phase November 13 to 17; the sea phase on November 21, and the post exercise de-briefing on November 22. The objectives of AMNEX are similar to those of other multilateral exercises of its ilk, including strengthening interoperability, increasing readiness, boosting knowledge and understanding, and fostering relations between organizations and people, which is the foundation of wider cooperation.

The IFR is scheduled to be held in and around Pattaya Bay from November 19 to 20. Though Thailand is no stranger to hosting exercises – as illustrated by its longtime role as host of the Cobra Gold exercises – this will be the first time it is hosting such a fleet review (See: “Oldest US Ally in Asia: Thailand or the Philippines?”).

As of November 7, 26 vessels from 19 participant countries will be featured, including eight of the ten ASEAN countries plus Australia, Bangladesh, China, India, Iran, Japan, Pakistan, Russia, South Korea, Sri Lanka, and the United States. 17 Navy chiefs will participate, along with 19 representatives from not just Asia, but some Middle Eastern, European, and Latin American countries too. Apart from formal activities, including an anticipated review by Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, there will be other celebratory activities organized as well including with the help of the Pattaya City Council.

The 11th ANCM will be held from November 18 to 19, with the opening ceremony presided over by the Thai defense minister. The proposed theme for this year’s meeting focuses on the protection and preservation of the marine environment. But as with previous meetings, the agenda will be wide-ranging, with countries discussing pending items including progress on an ANCM Plus Arrangement and the ASEAN Military Ready Group (AMRG) proposed by Malaysia, the previous host of the ANCM, as well as other activities such as an ASEAN maritime security information sharing exercise and engagements to commemorate the 75th year of the Indonesian Navy.

Singapore is expected to host the next ANCM in 2018. And with the city-state also holding the ASEAN chair and set to advance a number of maritime security-related items next year including a long-mulled ASEAN-China exercise, naval developments will no doubt remain interesting to watch in the multilateral space as well going forward (See: “US-Singapore Defense Ties in the Spotlight Amid Trump-Lee Meeting”).