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Indonesia Kicks Off ASEAN Joint Military Drills Amid South China Sea Tension


Units from the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) recently embarked on their inaugural joint military exercises in Indonesia’s South Natuna Sea. These drills come at a time of escalating geopolitical tensions between major global powers and rising concerns over China’s activities in the South China Sea.

The ASEAN Military Drills: A Non-Combat Operation

The five-day military operation, taking place in the South Natuna Sea, primarily focuses on enhancing military skills. These skills encompass areas such as maritime security, patrols, and the distribution of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. According to the Indonesian military, this exercise aims to promote regional stability and cooperation among ASEAN members.

ASEAN Unity in Action

All ten member nations of ASEAN, including prospective member East Timor, are participating in these joint military drills. The decision to hold this collaborative exercise underscores the commitment of ASEAN countries to maintain regional stability and enhance their collective security. It also sends a strong signal of unity among member states in the face of rising geopolitical tensions.

Clarification on the Nature of the Drills

Indonesia’s military chief, Yudo Margono, clarified that these drills are non-combat operations, highlighting ASEAN’s primary focus on economic cooperation rather than military confrontation. The exercises are structured to emphasize social and humanitarian aspects of military cooperation, intending to foster regional resilience and readiness in times of crises.

Sensitive Relocation of Drills

The choice of the South Natuna Sea as the exercise location stems from diplomatic sensitivities. Initially, the drills were planned to be held in the southernmost waters of the South China Sea, which are contested by Beijing. In response to concerns, the location was changed to ensure that the exercises would not inadvertently escalate tensions with China.

China’s “10-Dash Line” Map and Regional Concerns

The joint military drills coincide with diplomatic protests against China’s release of its “10-dash line” map, which asserts expansive territorial claims, covering approximately 90% of the South China Sea. This region is vital for global trade, with more than $3 trillion in trade passing through it each year. The Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam have rejected China’s map, deeming it baseless. Malaysia has also lodged a diplomatic protest in response.

ASEAN’s Quest for a Code of Conduct

For over two decades, ASEAN has been engaged in discussions regarding a Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea. Progress on this front has been slow, leading to growing frustration among some ASEAN member states, including the Philippines. During the 43rd ASEAN Summit, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos emphasized his country’s commitment to safeguarding its sovereignty while expressing the need to address challenges in the South China Sea.

Promoting Peace and Cooperation

Amid rising geopolitical tensions and disputes over territorial claims, these drills emphasize the region’s intent to focus on cooperation rather than confrontation. As ASEAN continues to navigate the complexities of the South China Sea issue, these exercises are a tangible step toward fostering unity and preparedness among member nations.

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