Next week, the United States and Southeast Asian states will hold the first U.S.-ASEAN Maritime Exercise. While the idea is far from new and builds on Washington’s longstanding security ties with individual Southeast Asian countries, its translation to reality, which comes just under a year after China had a similar first with ASEAN, nonetheless has significance – both real and perceived – for both U.S. policy as well as broader regional security dynamics as well.
As I have noted before, the United States has long had multilateral exercises with Southeast Asian states, including the Cooperation Readiness and Afloat (CARAT) and the Southeast Asia Cooperation Training (SEACAT) exercises. But there have been ongoing efforts over the past few years to both boost the complexity of these exercises and to further multilateralize them as well.
One of the proposals that has been in the works, dating back to the latter years of the Obama administration, has been the holding of a first U.S.-ASEAN maritime exercise. After several delays, the decision was reached in October last year to hold the exercise in 2019 at the ASEAN-U.S. Defense Ministers’ Informal Meeting between then-U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis and the 10 Southeast Asian defense ministers, which took place in Singapore on the sidelines of the 12th ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) and the 5th ADMM-Plus.
Next week, the first-ever U.S.-ASEAN multilateral maritime exercise is expected to finally kick off. Per accounts from both U.S. and Thai sources, the five-day drill, which is to last from September 2 to September 7, will be launched from the Thai naval base in Chonburi and will be mostly held off the coast of Vietnam’s Ca Mau province focused on aspects of maritime security. As had been expected, it comes alongside the holding of this year’s iteration of U.S. SEACAT exercises that have been going on over the past few weeks.
Despite the delays in operationalizing the idea, a first U.S.-ASEAN maritime exercise is nonetheless a significant development. With respect to U.S. policy, it reinforces the United States’ longstanding role in serving as a security partner for Southeast Asian states, underscores Washington’s continuing efforts to network and multilateralize current drills, and highlights some of the newer initiatives that can be seen as advancing defense ties with regional countries under the security aspect of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy. This is apart from the operational value of these exercises in strengthening the capacity of Southeast Asian maritime forces and increasing the coordination between them as well.
With respect to ASEAN, the holding of a U.S.-ASEAN maritime exercise serves to reinforce the grouping’s engagement of major powers. The engagement allows ASEAN to claim that Southeast Asian states are able to both strengthen their engagement with the United States but also do so in a calibrated way with China, as emphasized by the back-to-back holding of the U.S.-ASEAN maritime exercise with the China-ASEAN maritime exercise. This is despite the fact that this papers over realities such as the other actual reasons behind the timings of those exercises, the real challenges that ASEAN has faced in balancing the two major powers, and the issues that ASEAN as a group has faced in strengthening multilateral defense cooperation despite the gains that have been realized (it is worth noting, for instance, that ASEAN countries themselves only held the first multilateral drill among themselves back in 2017).
Beyond ASEAN, and irrespective of the actual stated reasons for the holding of the U.S.-ASEAN maritime exercise, the engagement will nonetheless be viewed as a barometer of U.S.-China relations and broader competition between the two powers in the Indo-Pacific region. The optics of the back-to-back holding of the engagements, coupled with perceived trends such as China’s efforts to boost security ties with Southeast Asian states while also trying to restrict aspects of their defense engagement with Washington – including reportedly within negotiations on a binding South China Sea code of conduct – will fuel the narrative of U.S.-China competition in Southeast Asia including in the maritime domain.
To be sure, the full impact of the exercise can only be evaluated following its implementation, including the reception and reactions from regional states. Nonetheless, as the first U.S.-ASEAN maritime exercise finally gets set to kick off and before the explosion of expected headlines that will follow, it is important to understand its wider significance – both real and perceived – for the United States, for Southeast Asia, and for the wider region.