Militaries from member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) began their first joint drills on Tuesday (19/9) in Indonesia, with Myanmar representatives attending despite the bloc’s ban on junta leaders.
ASEAN countries have participated in multinational defense exercises before. But this is the first exercise involving only the bloc, which is battling perceptions of irrelevance on key regional issues such as turmoil in Myanmar and disputes in the South China Sea.
This is a non-combat exercise, where troops train in areas such as humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, rescue operations and joint maritime patrols, according to host Indonesia. “By uniting, we can maintain stability in the region for the benefit of the people,” said TNI Commander Admiral Yudo Margono to journalists on Batam Island.
He said troops from every country in the bloc, including Myanmar, were taking part in the five-day ASEAN Solidarity Exercise. He did not specify the extent of Myanmar’s participation.
TNI Commander Admiral Yudo Margono inspects troops during the opening ceremony of the ASEAN Solidarity Exercise at Batu Ampar Harbor on Batam Island, Indonesia, Tuesday, September 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Andaru Kz )
At the opening ceremony of the exercise on the island of Batam, Myanmar was represented by a defense attache. An Indonesian military official told AFP news agency on condition of anonymity that Myanmar would only attend the drills as an observer.
Myanmar has been hit by deadly violence since 2021, when the military overthrew Aung San Suu Kyi’s government and launched a bloody crackdown on dissent. Junta leaders have been barred from attending ASEAN meetings, and the bloc’s efforts to defuse the crisis have so far produced no results.
Indonesia also denied that the drills were aimed at countering China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea, almost all of which is claimed by Beijing.
China has angered Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries in recent years by entering waters they claim. The country has developed artificial islands in the region and equipped some of them with military facilities and runways.
Singapore and Brunei Navy personnel line up during the opening ceremony of the ASEAN Solidarity Exercise at Batu Ampar Harbor on Batam Island, Tuesday, September 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Andaru Kz)
Responding to the drills, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning on Tuesday said that Beijing’s position on the South China Sea remained “consistent”.
Initially, organizers planned to hold ASEAN Solidarity Exercises in the North Natuna Sea, which Indonesia says is within its exclusive economic zone. But China also occasionally sends patrols there to assert its historic claim to the region.
Following talks between ASEAN military leaders in June, the drills were moved to the South Natuna Sea, to avoid disputed waters. Cambodia, China’s main ally in the region, declined to confirm its participation at the initial site but is now present. (ab/ka)