What does the US-ASEAN exercise in the South China Sea mean?

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tải xuống 2Within the framework of the “ASEAN and US Defense Ministers’ Agreement 2018” , the US and 10 ASEAN member countries conducted the first joint maritime exercise with eight warships, four aircrafts and more than a thousand personnel on September 2-7 2019. The exercise was conducted amid ongoing Chinese coercive acts against its neighbors in the South China Sea, especially at the Vanguard Bank in Vietnam's exclusive economic zone, continental shelf, threatening Vietnam's long-term oil and gas cooperation activities. On the other hand, China seeks to “shut” other countries down, demanding to settle internally and not to internationalize the problem.

Vietnam sent a vessel to participate in the exercise. Vietnam's participation is normal because Vietnam is a member that has an important role to play in ASEAN. It is worth mentioning that in the past, Vietnam was cautious when participating in such drills, but this time Vietnam seemed to be more active in taking part in the event. Vietnam's warship was one of the eight ships that joined the drills and its performance was quite professional according to the assessment of Rear Admiral Murray Joe Tynch.

Some analysts said that China itself urged Vietnam to be more active in participating in multilateral activities in the South China Sea, including this first ASEAN-US joint exercise, because if Vietnam fights against China alone, it would be ‘crushed’ by those in power in Beijing.

The analysts also said that China sent Haiyang Dizhi 8 group to repeatedly violate Vietnam's sovereign rights and jurisdiction at Vanguard Bank since early July 2019 to “erode Vietnam's will and determination” to confront China. However, it is difficult for China to carry out this plot because Vietnam has unyielding and indomitable will.

China targets Vietnam at this point of time because it thinks that Vietnam is the most “stubborn, hardheaded” among countries in the South China Sea. If Vietnam is subdued, others will have to follow China's trajectory. On the other hand, China wants to "deter" Vietnam from internationalizing the South China Sea problem at meetings within ASEAN framework in 2020 when Vietnam is the ASEAN Chair. Nonetheless, China’s doing may backfire; China's escalating aggression will probably push Vietnam closer to the United States. The fact that Vietnam actively cooperates with ASEAN countries to carry out ASEAN-US exercise illustrates this.

Given China’s repeated and increasingly aggressive actions in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf since the beginning of July 2019 till now (sometimes Haiyang Dizhi 8 group was just 50 nautical miles away from the coast of Vietnam), it is natural that Vietnam must push forth international cooperation, take advantage of multilateral cooperation in the South China Sea and call for the support of the international community.

Although the US Navy has conducted exercises and port calls and interacted with many countries in Southeast Asia over the years, the first successful ASEAN-US Joint maritime exercise in the South China Sea is a new step in the US-ASEAN cooperation, demonstrating the trend of increasing multilateral cooperation in the South China Sea. These activities have important implications for maintaining peace, stability, freedom and safety of navigation in the South China Sea and are important factors in preventing Chinese aggression and expansion in the South China Sea.

In a press briefing on the first ASEAN-US maritime exercise in the South China Sea, Ms. Andrea L. Thompson - US Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security emphasized, “the US coordinates with partners and allies to ensure freedom of navigation and freedom of movement in that area (South China Sea). The US cooperates bilaterally as well as multilaterally in order to hold China accountable”; affirming that the US will continue to coordinate with allies and partners to "defend justice and freedom of navigation". The -US-ASEAN maritime exercise clearly showed it’s China’s acts of bullying and coercive actions toward small countries in the South China Sea that gave the US opportunities to strengthen bilateral cooperation with countries in the area in particular and US-ASEAN multilateral cooperation in the South China Sea in general.

The ASEAN - US maritime exercise had greater meaning with the participation of all 10 ASEAN countries as a unified bloc, including Laos, which is a landlocked country. A very special thing is that although Myanmar's military is under US sanctions, Myanmar also sent the UMS Kyan Sittha frigate to the drill. It is also an important milestone rejecting Beijing's unruly claim in COC negotiations with ASEAN countries as it demanded that ASEAN and "non-regional countries" must consult with Beijing to have any joint military drill.

While China seeks to eliminate the US and non-regional countries from the South China Sea and does not want to see any exercise between ASEAN and "non-regional countries", especially with the US, this first ASEAN-US joint exercise was the most obvious response to Beijing that ASEAN is independent and not under Beijing's control and is a united bloc seeking to play a central role in the maintenance of peace, stability, freedom, security and safety of the sea in accordance with international law. This new action will help ASEAN enhance its position in COC negotiations in the upcoming time.

This favorable start would hopefully bring more frequent, ASEAN-US joint exercises in the South China Sea in the future to maintain an international rules-based order in the South China Sea, and at the same time, pave the way for other multilateral actions in the South China Sea, for example, ASEAN's joint drills with other partners such as India, Australia, Japan and European countries such as the United Kingdom, France,…, even joint drills between ASEAN with all four countries in the "Quad" including the United States, Japan, Australia and India in the framework of promoting the free and open Indo-Pacific strategy.

It seems that Beijing's escalating aggressiveness in the South China Sea are facilitating the “Quad”’s execution of the free and open Indo-Pacific strategy.