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China’s Proposed Naval Drill with ASEAN States to Check the US

India must take lessons from China’s naval drill plan with ASEAN states on having good ties with neighbours. 

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan (4th R) along with his  counterparts from ASEAN countries during the China-ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Informal Meeting in Beijing, China, October 16, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)

As the 2015 Malabar exercise in the Bay of Bengal comes to an end and US, Japanese and Indian naval commanders express satisfaction over achieving greater ‘inter-operability’, China has sprung a surprise counter-move. In what would seem to be an obvious conciliatory gesture over the tense spat in the South China Sea, China has offered to hold joint naval drills with ASEAN countries.

This would be as much of an effort to break out of the ‘diplomatic encirclement’ as China sees the Malabar exercises as growing evidence of the US-Japan-India axis with Australia to be counted in it. But the joint drill offer to the ASEAN is also seen as a pre-emptive move in response to Washington’s plan to send its warships around the Spratly Islands, which China claims as its territory.

Striking a conciliatory tone over an increasingly tense spat in the resource-rich region, Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan told his counterparts from the ASEAN at an informal summit in Beijing last week that there was a need for all to push for the “correct” development of ties.

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China’s Proposed Naval Drill with
ASEAN States  to Check the US

‘Managing Risks’

Later in a statement on the Chinese defence ministry’s microblog, Wanquan was quoted as saying that “all sides should manage and control the risks from their disputes.” He said that Beijing was willing to hold joint military exercises in the South China Sea with the ASEAN nations next year.

Emphasising that the main purpose of the joint naval drills, as he clarified in a subsequent paragraph, was to avoid “accidental encounters”, Wanquan said the drills would also include “search and rescue as well as disaster relief.”

Some observers say the proposal may mark the beginning of a charm offensive or atleast a new Chinese posture – a climbdown from a very aggressive ‘forward policy’ that involved reclaiming land from sea and building military bases on them to one that would seek to carry the ASEAN countries with Beijing’s efforts to keep the disputes under control and not allow the US or its Malabar allies to exploit them.

This May 11, 2015, file photo  shows China’s alleged on-going reclamation of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. (Photo: AP)
This May 11, 2015, file photo shows China’s alleged on-going reclamation of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. (Photo: AP)

So far, China has responded angrily to the US’ plan to send its naval vessels into the 12-nautical-mile zone around China’s newly built artificial islands in the Spratlys, vowing to deliver a “head-on blow” to any foreign force that “violates” its sovereignty. But its joint-drills proposal is perhaps also a signal to Washington that Beijing could work peacefully with the Southeast Asian countries to keep the US out of the region.

Snapshot

China’s Response to Malabar

  • Japan joined India and the US in Malabar naval exercise to develop ‘inter-operability’ between three navies
  • China says it is ‘not so fragile’ to be worried by the exercise but understandably remains wary of it
  • India has maintained Japan’s inclusion in Malabar shouldn’t be seen as an effort to gang up against China
  • China has now tried to counter a ‘diplomatic encirclement’ by offering joint drills with ASEAN navies
  • Many believe this is a pre-emptive move to check US plan to deploy warships near Spratly Islands
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ASEAN Perspective

If the ASEAN countries agree to do the joint drill with China, it would mean Beijing is not seen as a threat to peace but as a power crucial to maintain regional tranquility. And if the ASEAN countries manage to keep Chinese territorial ambitions in check, they are only too willing to do so because they see their future growth in trading with China.


China’s Proposed Naval Drill with
ASEAN States  to Check the US

China’s relations with several Southeast Asian nations, especially the Philippines and Vietnam, have been extremely strained in recent years by its assertive tone on territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea. The country’s island-building in the region has further escalated tensions.

But it is not yet clear whether China would like to do the joint drill with all the ASEAN navies – or bilaterally with each one of them. It is possible it might try getting started with those countries with whom China has better relations and then rope in the rest or at least divide the ASEAN.

China’s Defence Minister Chang Wangquan, left,  leaves the stage at the Xiangshan Forum, a gathering of the region’s security officials, in Beijing, Saturday, October 17, 2015. (Photo: AP)
China’s Defence Minister Chang Wangquan, left, leaves the stage at the Xiangshan Forum, a gathering of the region’s security officials, in Beijing, Saturday, October 17, 2015. (Photo: AP)

China’s Outflanking Move

The way China is seeking to package the joint drill proposal is that it is important for peace in the South China Sea – so all ASEAN nations may realise they have a stake. This is a classic Chinese outflanking move – with which it got the closest of US allies in the AIIB or to support the OROB Chinese proposal.

Chinese leaders have finally realised a needless muscular approach with neighbours only encourages outside powers to exploit it. That’s a lesson India has no reason to overlook.

(The writer, a veteran BBC correspondent, is author of two highly acclaimed books on Northeast India – “Insurgent Crossfire” and “Troubled Periphery”.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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