NAVIGATING THE SINO-US RIVALRY
Even as China steps up its regional military engagements, the US has also been taking similar action.
Last year, a combat training exercise with the Philippines – Cope Thunder – was revived after more than three decades. Once-bilateral drills with Thailand and Indonesia – Cobra Gold and Garuda Shield respectively – have since morphed into major multilateral endeavours.
At the same time, the US has also pushed for new engagements, such as the very first ASEAN-US maritime exercise in 2019.
Either way, Southeast Asian nations benefit – although the merits vary, say observers.
“The devil lies in the details, it’s what kind of engagement and here we see for Southeast Asian nations, the scale and depth of their engagements with the US tend to be deeper and more substantive,” said Dr Hoo.
Even so, engagements with the PLA “go a long way to improving confidence”, pointed out Dr Huang from NUS.
“It’s a competence building mechanism, to let the other party gain some degree of insight into the strengths and inherent weaknesses as well of the Chinese military,” he added.
That being said, Dr Hoo from NTU believes that regardless of how frequent or large scale the joint exercises are, it will not affect how China handles its maritime claims.
“On the contrary, it sends the very simple message that the PLA has the right to operate in the region, particularly the South China Sea, and that it is the regional superpower,” he added.
“Building up of confidence is no guarantee for miscalculation and mishaps.”
Dr Storey said the trend of growing Chinese defence engagements in the region is set to stay as it views these as a means of promoting a China-led security order that displaces and eventually excludes the US.
“Stripped to its bare bones, that is clearly the goal of President Xi Jinping’s Global Security Initiative,” Dr Storey told CNA, citing a new concept unveiled by China in February last year on enhancing international security.
“By conducting military exercises with Southeast Asian countries, China is attempting to show that it can be an alternative provider of regional security goods to the United States.”
Analysts expect ASEAN nations to keep up their balancing act as the US and China compete for regional influence.
During his stint as the bloc’s chair last year, Indonesian President Joko Widodo repeatedly emphasised that ASEAN will not become a proxy for any power, and will cooperate with anyone for peace and prosperity.
“This means (Southeast Asian nations) have to balance their ties with both great powers, and balance means not just in terms of economic links, but also in terms of security,” said Dr Hoo.
“So to the extent that (China) can have some form of military engagements – even if it’s not as substantive as the US – it is still something which the Chinese would like to have, and something which is beneficial for these Southeast Asian countries themselves.”
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