BATAM, Indonesia: Due to mounting geopolitical tensions and protests against China's activities in the South China Sea, ASEAN member nations have initiated their first-ever joint military exercises in Indonesia's South Natuna Sea region.
A statement from the Indonesian military confirmed that the five-day collaborative operation focuses primarily on enhancing military capabilities, including maritime security, patrols, and the coordinated distribution of humanitarian aid and disaster relief.
All ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are actively participating in this exercise, including East Timor, a prospective organization member.
"This is not a combat operation because ASEAN is more focused on economics. The training is more about social activities," Yudo Margono, Indonesia's military chief, told reporters after the opening ceremony on the Indonesian island of Batam this week.
Initially slated for the southernmost waters of the South China Sea, the location of the exercises was shifted due to the sensitivity surrounding the initial choice. This decision comes amidst diplomatic protests against China's recent release of its "10-dash line" map, a move that seeks to extend its territorial claims to encompass approximately 90 percent of the South China Sea. This region is instrumental in global trade, with over US$3 trillion in trade passing through its waters annually.
Several ASEAN member states, including the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam, have openly rejected China's map, denouncing it as unsubstantiated. Malaysia has additionally lodged a diplomatic protest in response.
In an attempt to address the South China Sea dispute, ASEAN deliberated over a Code of Conduct for more than two decades, albeit with limited progress to date. Frustration has grown among certain ASEAN members, including the Philippines, regarding the lack of headway on this code.
Responding to queries concerning heightened geopolitical tensions, Indonesia's Margono reiterated that this week's drills are fundamentally non-combat.