The US-ASEAN maritime exercise that started on Monday is the first joint naval drill between the United States and the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. However, the multilateral drill has raised speculation over US involvement in Southeast Asia despite the negotiations between China and some ASEAN members such as Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam making good progress toward resolving their territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Since the White House seems determined to push ahead with its so-called Indo-Pacific strategy, the US administration has made desperate efforts to expand its influence and boost its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region by strengthening its ties with regional allies and promising to safeguard the security of other countries.
The US-ASEAN naval drill, which the US claims is aimed at "maintaining maritime security and preempting wrongdoings in the sea", is part of Washington's policy to advance its Indo-Pacific strategy and strengthen its presence in Southeast Asia.
In terms of security, Washington has been wooing ASEAN member states in order to change the regional security situation, but that does not mean ASEAN will side with the US against China.
China and ASEAN have close trade and economic ties, especially because China has been ASEAN's largest trade partner for 10 years in a row and ASEAN has become China's second-largest trade partner after being the third largest for seven consecutive years.
The two sides are also making joint efforts to conclude the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership negotiations. In addition, given their mutual interest in safeguarding regional security, China and ASEAN have taken measures to strengthen military cooperation. For instance, China and ASEAN member states held their first joint naval exercise last year.
By holding naval drills with China and the US both, ASEAN is possibly trying to promote multilevel cooperation with the ultimate aim of deepening its cooperation with the international community.
Irrespective of whether or not ASEAN supports the Indo-Pacific strategy of the US, which is increasingly resorting to unilateralism, the regional bloc is seeking cooperation with the US to counterbalance China's rising influence in the Asia-Pacific.
The US-ASEAN maritime drill also reflects the concerns of the US and some ASEAN members about a rising China. Washington, which is seeking to return to Southeast Asia and regain the Asia-Pacific region's leadership, cannot accept Beijing's increasing influence in a region which it withdrew a large number of its troops from after the end of the Cold War.
Yet despite the escalation in tensions over the territorial disputes in the South China Sea in recent years, there are strong signs of the situation slowly returning to normal as negotiations on the South China Sea Code of Conduct progress. The US is perturbed probably because once the Code of Conduct comes into force, it will have no excuse to interfere in the region's affairs. But since the disputes are too complicated to be resolved overnight, China should pay more attention to the security situation in the South China Sea.
Nonetheless, the US-ASEAN maritime drill should not be seen as signaling a threat to China's security, particularly because China's cooperation with ASEAN on trade and regional security will continue.
The article is based on Zhu Feng's interview with China Daily's Pan Yixuan. Zhu is the executive director of the Collaborative Innovation Center of South China Sea Studies and dean of the Institute of International Relations of Nanjing University. The views don't necessarily represent those of China Daily.
(China Daily 09/06/2019 page9)