Geography dictates two divergent perspectives for ASEAN countries. The first belongs to the “continental” group and the second to the archipelagic nations, especially Indonesia and the Philippines, which constitute nearly half of ASEAN’s population, GDP, and land area, and over 80 percent of its exclusive economic zones. A maritime outlook could be expected to dominate in this second group but they nevertheless remain inwardly focused; so much so that Indonesia, in its Defence White Paper of 2015, categorized the threats it faces during the period 2016-2020 as factual (the range of non-traditional threats to security) and non-factual (the threat of conflict or war). The focus was on “factual” threats, notwithstanding China’s militarization of the South China Sea islands commencing in late 2013. China’s heft and assertion have resulted in much of continental ASEAN increasingly coming under Beijing’s sway, while maritime Southeast Asia appears divided. It is against this backdrop that the recently concluded ASEAN-U.S. Maritime Exercise (AUMX) should be assessed.

The plan of action to implement the ASEAN-U.S. Strategic Partnership 2016-2020 includes promoting dialogue and strengthening cooperation to address regional security challenges facing the region. It also discusses the promotion of freedom of navigation and overflight, the deepening of ASEAN-U.S. maritime cooperation, the promotion of technical cooperation, shared awareness, capacity building, exchange of experience, and sharing of knowledge and expertise. Only basic constabulary aspects of this plan were addressed in the AUMX, in which ASEAN’s current country coordinator for the United States (Laos) took a back seat and allowed Thailand, an American ally and the current ASEAN chair, to co-lead the exercise with the United States.

AUMX commenced at Sattahip Naval Base in Thailand on September 2 and ended in Singapore on September 6. This meant warships from much of the region and the United States had to pass through Chinese-claimed waters in the South China Sea, presumably without prior approval. Exercise content was reportedly limited to vessel boarding, search and seizure, search and rescue, domain awareness, interoperability in maritime asset tracking, and division tactics, all involving basic processes. The U.S. Navy was represented by the USS Montgomery (LCS-8), the USS Wayne E Mayer (DDG-108), three MH-60 helicopters, one P-8 Poseidon, the staff of Commander Task Force 73 and Destroyer Squadron 7, and three commercial vessels contracted to serve as targets. ASEAN participation included Brunei’s offshore patrol vessel (OPV) KD Darulaman, the Philippine OPV BRP Ramon Alcaraz, Singapore’s frigate RSN Tenacious, Myanmar’s frigate Kyan Sittha, the Thai OPV HTMS Krabi (which also served as the command platform), and Vietnam’s corvette HQ18. Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, and Indonesia participated as observers without sending ships. Of note was the active participation from Myanmar, whose military commander-in-chief has been sanctioned by the United States over the extrajudicial killing of Rohingya Muslims. Equally noteworthy was the participation of the Philippines, notwithstanding President Rodrigo Duterte’s engagement with China.

For ASEAN, AUMX marks a step up in the evolution of capacity in non-controversial, low-end areas of maritime security. Such exercises enable development of the ability of ships from different nations to know what is happening around them and to respond collectively as a team. This is not as simple as it sounds, given different languages, levels of experience, communications and tactical doctrine of the navies concerned. They also enable ASEAN to learn from the best practices of other practitioners of maritime security, imbibe new ideas, and conceptualize and develop new ways of tackling security challenges, while at the same time “socializing” great powers into the “ASEAN way.”  AUMX sends a pointed signal to China over its desire to limit foreign warships operating in its claimed waters in the South China Sea and its desire for a veto over Southeast Asian exercises with foreign militaries, as it has proposed in the draft ASEAN-China Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. ASEAN was able to balance itself between two great power geopolitical competitors and engage both on its own terms.

For the United States, AUMX provides an opportunity to engage with ASEAN as a whole, rather than just the subsets it has worked with in exercises such as Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training and Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training. The diplomatic role of the U.S. Navy has long been one of its strengths, with education and training being an important contributor toward the build-up of goodwill for the United States in numerous countries. Professional expertise goes a long way in eliciting admiration from those with an open mind. There is, however, still a need for the United States to go beyond military elements in its overall strategy for the region and do more in connectivity and investment issues.

The report that ships and aircraft were organized into a combined task force structure with headquarters on HTMS Krabi is interesting, given the commitment made at the 2018 ADMM to uphold the principles of “consensus based decision-making” and “flexible, voluntary, and non-binding contributions with assets remaining under national command and control.” It is unclear whether or not it was these inherent contradictions that were behind the absence of ships from Indonesia and Malaysia, two of the largest navies in ASEAN.

The AUMX, like the ASEAN–China maritime exercise last year, acts as a building block to enhance great power influence in ASEAN while also boosting the capabilities of Southeast Asian states to deal with low-grade maritime challenges. The Bali Concord II, which gave birth to the ASEAN Security Community in October 2003, recognizes the “sovereign right of member countries to pursue their individual foreign policies and defense arrangements” and subscribes to the principle of comprehensive security for all. The concord recognizes that maritime issues and concerns are trans-boundary in nature and therefore have to be addressed regionally in a holistic, integrated, and comprehensive manner. In 2009, the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) adopted a concept paper on the use of Southeast Asian military assets to address the easiest cooperative level of maritime security challenges: humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. It was not until May 2011 that the words “maritime security” first figured in ADMM joint statements. Addressing constabulary or law-enforcement challenges proved more difficult, and it was only in 2017 that the first ASEAN naval exercise to address constabulary challenges to security took place. ASEAN action to address coercive challenges from external states, the most difficult security challenge around which to organize cooperation, has so far been limited. Whether ASEAN’s vision and principles on security cooperation will survive unchanged, or whether they will be transformed as ASEAN nations respond to an increasingly assertive China, remains to be seen.

About Lalit Kapur

Commodore Lalit Kapur is a veteran with over 35 years of service in the Indian Navy, including in diplomatic and tri-service appointments, and holds three master’s degrees as well as a deep interest in maritime history and the Indo-Pacific. He is currently a senior fellow at the Delhi Policy Group.