On Friday at an informal Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Beijing, China’s defense minister announced that he is willing to conduct joint drills with Southeast Asian countries in the disputed South China Sea. The purpose of these drills would be to enhance search and rescue capabilities and practice for accidental encounters at sea in the disputed waters. Tensions in the region have been heated as of late and China is involved in territorial disputes in the South China Sea with four out of the 10 members of ASEAN. Arguably Beijing is attempting a charm offensive with its ASEAN members in an attempt to reassure them that its intentions in the South China Sea are benign. Regardless of how genuine Beijing is, if such drills are to occur they can serve to greatly benefit the security situation in the region by at least promoting a degree of cooperation and mutual understanding.
South China Sea Maritime Drills – The Announcement
This announcement concerning drills was made by Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan at a gathering of ASEAN defense ministers hosted by Beijing, a first for China and carried by the Defense Ministry on its microblog. Chang said “Our biggest common benefit for the region lies in speeding up development. Our biggest common desire is in strengthening cooperation. Our biggest common need is in maintaining stability”. Chang was cited as saying that all sides should work towards achieving the aim of “jointly solving disputes and controlling risks” and that the biggest shared need is the maintenance of stability.
Next year, China is willing to hold joint exercises with ASEAN nations in the South China Sea for “maritime rescues and disaster relief” as well as on rules about dealing with unplanned encounters at sea. These proposed drills were mentioned by Chang during the meeting and listed in a post on the microblog. Oddly enough though, Chang failed to directly mention the South China Sea dispute in his opening remarks, instead focusing on regional threats emanating from terrorism, radicalism, and dangers posed by natural disasters and major accidents.
China has disputes with ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei as well as Taiwan in the South China Sea. Chang criticized some ASEAN members without directly naming them for disrupting regional cooperation by “playing up tensions and involving external parties in the region”. Chang did state the importance of cooperation in that “China desires cooperation and dialogue with ASEAN defense bodies to together safeguard regional peace and stability and join hands to create a good security environment.”
Beijing is attempting to improve its regional image that has been damaged as of late due to its provocative activities in the South China Sea and is keen to use forums such as this ASEAN meeting to help do so. This meeting was followed by the sixth annual Xiangshan Forum which hosts over 300 defense officials and academics from 47 countries to discuss Asian-Pacific security issues.
Unfortunately reporters were only allowed in the meeting for less than 10 minutes so it is not entirely sure what other issues were raised. Regional security expert Li Mingjiang of Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University said China aims to use such forums to “promote China’s views, explain China’s policies and improve China’s security image.” He added, “Because the meeting is in Beijing, it would be hard for any country to confront China over the South China Sea” while also noting the difficulties that ASEAN faces in confronting Beijing due to the “lack of solidarity among ASEAN countries over the issue.”
The Philippines and Vietnam arguably currently have the bitterest dispute with China in the South China Sea. A senior naval commander of the Philippine Navy who withheld his name as he is not authorized to speak to the media told Reuters that the possibility of joint exercises is welcomed saying “That’s a good idea, we welcome that proposal”. More so, the commander pointed out that the Philippines would like the opportunity to verify that China’s island building projects in the Spratly’s are not for military purposes. He said, “It would be good if China will open its artificial islands, allow us to dock there and visit these islands.”
Comments from Vietnam were not readily made though this has been a troubling week for the Vietnam-China relationship. On Thursday, Vietnam accused China of sinking one of its fishing boats near the disputed islands though the incident does not appear to have been carried out by the Chinese government. Hanoi though contends that Beijing’s aggressive actions are believed to embolden China’s fisherman in the region to act aggressively. According to Phan Huy Hoang, a Vietnamese official in central Quang Ngai where the fisherman came from, “Chinese actions against fishermen from Quang Ngai province have been more aggressive and brutal”. He also noted that this year alone, over 20 Vietnamese fishing boats have been attacked by Chinese vessels.
Reactions from other ASEAN members were limited. Just a day earlier though at a meeting between Fan Changlong, Vice-Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission and Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, both countries pledged to deepen their military cooperation. China state-owned Xinhua reported that Beijing and Kuala Lumpur are keen to strengthen cooperation in regional security areas.
Military studies research fellow Daniel Wei Boon Chua, of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore told the BBC that China’s offer “indicates potential for the conflict to de-escalate” and that if the drills do indeed occur, they would serve as “a confidence-building measure that can ease tensions”. Meanwhile William Choong, senior fellow at think-tank II-SS, called Beijing’s offer of drills “a conciliatory effort at blunting the bad press” and “to tamp down the temperature when you have US Navy ships possibly sailing in.” That latter point refers to the plan by the U.S. Navy to sail in waters claimed by China in the South China Sea though regarded by the U.S. as international waters.
Without a doubt, joint drills in the South China Sea would be a positive development. They can serve to provide more transparency but more importantly, to assist in developing a code of conduct for disputing countries in dealing with unplanned encounters at sea. Beijing though might be using the possibility of such drills as an attempt to temporarily put ASEAN states at ease. Though ASEAN has not presented a strong, united front on the South China Sea dispute, half of its members are currently embroiled in it. Beijing is also uneasy about the planned sail through by the U.S. Navy near its South China Sea possessions and could be using this offer as an attempt to diminish the regional support the U.S. has in pursuing this sail. Regardless, the offer of drills alone will certainly not solve the South China Sea dispute.