Indonesia has announced its decision to shift ASEAN’s first-ever joint military exercise from the South China Sea. It has shifted the drill in the vicinity of the Malacca Straits. Previously, as the chair of ASEAN this year, Indonesia had announced that the exercise would take place in Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea, specifically in the region known as North Natuna. North Natuna has been claimed by China through its nine-dash line.
Reports indicate that the primary reason for the location shift is Cambodia’s denial of any discussion on organizing the exercise. When Indonesia initially announced the exercise after a meeting of defense officials in Bali, Cambodia issued a statement denying any such discussion. Subsequently, during a planning conference attended by ASEAN countries, it was decided to relocate the exercise from the North Natuna Sea to the South Natuna area near Batam. However, Cambodia and Myanmar, both having close relations with China, did not participate in the planning conference.
Response to China’s growing assertiveness
This joint military exercise holds significant importance as ASEAN has never conducted such an exercise on its own. Furthermore, countries like Vietnam and the Philippines have firmly responded to Chinese intrusions into their territories lately. It is viewed as a response to China’s increasing assertiveness in the region.
While China claims the North Natuna region, Indonesia has consistently denied any dispute. It has maintained that the region is part of its sovereign territory. Additionally, the decision to shift the exercise’s location is stated to have no connection to maritime and territorial disputes. Rear Adm. Julius Widjojono, another Indonesian official, clarified that the selection of the new site near Batam island was based on its suitability for the planned drills. The priority has been given to the areas prone to natural disasters, as reported by RFA.
Although the new location may appear to be far from the contested waters, it can add an all new paradigm. As stated above, new location lies in the proximity to the Malacca Straits. It is a critical point for the Chinese trade. China heavily relies on this route for transporting raw materials, finished goods, and petroleum. The vulnerability of this route is often referred to as China’s “Malacca Dilemma.” The term was coined by former Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2003.
Therefore, while the shift may seem like a move to undisputed waters, it is actually a more concerning development for China compared to the previous location.