Last October, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China held a field-training exercise in the South China Sea.1 The joint naval maneuver followed a joint ASEAN-China tabletop exercise in Singapore on 2 August 2018.2 Together, these drills marked the inaugural ASEAN-China maritime exercise, the first such activity between ASEAN and a non-member country. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs touted the maritime exercise as a “new level of China-ASEAN strategic coordination and a new starting point for China and ASEAN countries to jointly address security threats and uphold regional peace and stability.”3
The big question, then and now, is what China will do next. In an article in the East Asia Forum, I posited that Beijing could leverage the nascent exercise to gradually establish its own version of the world’s largest multilateral naval exercise, the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RimPac)—potentially creating a “Rim of China” (RimChn).4 The timing, scope, and nature of a possible China-led multilateral maritime exercise may depend on how ASEAN, the rest of the Indo-Pacific region, and the world respond to that inaugural ASEAN-China maritime exercise. With a favorable response, Beijing may accelerate its plan to establish a recurring, exclusive exercise. Otherwise, Beijing may bide its time for a better opportunity to do so later.
To date, Beijing has failed to cajole ASEAN into holding another joint exercise in the South China Sea. China therefore has taken a different tack, like a river flowing around a large boulder, instead of directly and assertively pushing for what they eventually want, Beijing seems to be doing so indirectly and subtly with incremental steps—a more measured, nuanced, and patient approach.
The first step may have been the opportunistic joint naval drills with six ASEAN nations in the Yellow Sea from 24–26 April 2019.5 The participating ships had just concluded the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)–hosted International Fleet Review and Symposium—and 70th anniversary of the founding of the PLAN—in the nearby coastal city of Qingdao from 22–25 April.6 The naval drills were conducted by 13 ships and four helicopters from China, Thailand, Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, and two unnamed regional navies. The drills purportedly focused on ship formations and movement, search and rescue, inspection and capture, and medical support activities.7 Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong, PLAN commander, characterized the drills as “designed to show China’s sincerity and willingness to work with its neighbors, as well as the PLAN’s passion to build a maritime community with a shared future by enhancing security cooperation and mutual trust with all of its counterparts in SEA.”8
The second step may be what the PLAN characterized as a live-fire exercise with the navies of the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Singapore from 29 April to 15 May.9 The naval drills took place in those countries’ local waters as part of the ASEAN Defense Minister’s Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) activities. The live-fire exercise was divided into three phases. Phase 1 (29–30 April) was the opening ceremony in Busan, ROK. Phase 2 (1–12 May) was the actual live-fire activity in the South China Sea focused on rescuing ships hijacked by pirates, responding to maritime terrorist attacks, replenishment-at-sea activities, helicopter cross-deck landings, and maritime information sharing. Phase 3 (12–15 May) was the closing ceremony in Singapore. Interestingly, South Korea and Singapore characterized the event as an ADMM-Plus-sponsored field-training exercise involving 10 ASEAN countries as well as Australia, China, Japan, India, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia, and the United States.10
The third step may have been the China-Thailand naval training exercise off the coast of Zhanjiang in the South China Sea from 2–8 May.11 Seven naval ships and more than 1,000 sailors participated in the at-sea and in-port exercise. The exercise aimed to improve maritime cooperation between the two southeast Asian navies and enhance mutual capabilities to cope with current maritime security threats.
Beijing undoubtedly will leverage these naval drills to further press ASEAN to hold a joint ASEAN-China maritime exercise in the South China Sea later in the year—or next year, when Vietnam holds the ASEAN chairmanship. The goal of incrementally building this nascent regional naval exercise up to an annual or biennial maritime exercise that rivals and eventually supplants the U.S.-led RimPac endures.
The United States remains the wildcard.
There are several things Beijing does not want to see in the South China Sea:
- the next RIMPAC happening in the disputed and contested waters;12
- the United States conducting an exclusive ASEAN-U.S. naval exercise of its own;13
- The United States leading routine multilateral transits (and operations) through the strategic waterway.14
The first two scenarios are still aspirational, while the latter may be in the process of becoming a reality with naval ships from the U.S. Navy, Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, Indian Navy, and Republic of Philippine Navy sailing together through the South China Sea on their way to Singapore to join the second phase of the joint exercises of ASEAN ADMM-Plus.15 More regular multilateral maritime operations to exercise the universal freedom of navigation in the South China Sea are coming, as shown by the joint cooperative deployment of the U.S. Navy Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group and JMSDF Izumo Carrier Group 10–12 June 2019.16
All told, these actions would push back against China’s unilateral expansionism in and militarization of the strategic waterway, reinforce the legal standing of the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling that invalidated Beijing’s “nine-dash line” claims, and underscore the universal importance of the rule of law and compliance with global norms. The bold trifecta would demonstrate that the United States and like-minded nations are willing to stand up for their national interests and shared values—but could also accelerate Beijing’s ambition to beat Washington to the punch.
1. Ge Hongliang, “China, ASEAN Ties Leap Forward”, Global Times, 28 October 2018.
2. Lim Min Zhang, “Inaugural ASEAN–China Maritime Exercise Held at RSS Singapura–Changi Naval Base,” Strait Times, 3 August 2018.
3. “Press Conference”, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 30 October 2018.
4. Tuan Pham, “Watch Out Rim of Pacific, Rim of China May Be on Horizon,” East Asia Forum, 17 November 2018.
5. Li Jiayao, “China Conducts Joint Naval Exercise With Southeast Countries,” Xinhua, 26 April 2019.
6. Li Jiayao, “High-level Naval Symposium Concludes in Qingdao,” Xinhua, 27 April 2019.
7. Minnie Chan, “China Begins Joint Naval Drills With Six Southeast Asia Nations,” South China Morning Post, 26 April 2019.
8. Chan, “China Begins Joint Naval Drills.”
9. Chen Zhuo, “Chinese Frigate Leave for ROK and Singapore to Take Part in Live Fire Exercise,” China Military Online, 28 April 2019.
10. Timothy Goh, “Singapore and South Korea to Co-host 18-Country Maritime Security Exercise”, Strait Times, 28 April 2018.
11. Li Jiayao, “China and Thailand Conclude Joint Naval Training,” Xinhua, 9 May 2019
12. Tuan Pham and Grant Newsham, “China’s Worst Nightmare, RIMPAC in South China Sea”, National Interest, 29 September 2018.
13. Prashanth Parameswaran, “What’s in New U.S.-ASEAN Maritime Exercise?” The Diplomat, 24 October 2018.
14. Commander Seventh Fleet Public Affairs, “U.S., Partner Navies Sail Together in South China Sea,” 9 May 2019.
15. Dempsey Reyes, “Philippine, U.S., India, Japan Ships Sail in South China Sea,” Manila Times, 10 May 2019.
16. Commander Seventh Fleet Public Affairs, “USS Ronald Reagan, JS Izumo Sail Together in South China Sea,” 12 Jun 2019.