ASEAN relocates landmark military exercise

Indonesia announced yesterday (Thursday) it’s relocating a landmark joint regional military exercise away from the South China Sea, a contested maritime area hosting a third of the world’s total seaborne trade.

The exercises in September will be the first joint drills by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which Indonesia is chairing this year.

So why the sudden change of location? 

  • 🇮🇩 Indonesia said it just made more sense to bring the exercises (medical evacuations, disaster relief) closer to populated areas, but
  • 🇰🇭 Cambodia had already released a statement, objecting that it never agreed to the South China Sea location in the first place

Why’d Cambodia object?

  • 🏝️ China claims almost 90% of the South China Sea as its own, and
  • 🤝 Cambodia has very close ties to China (which is its top investor).

So Cambodia, with no claim of its own in the South China Sea, often blocks ASEAN’s attempts to address China’s vast claims there (which are disputed by various other ASEAN members).

Intrigue’s take: Geopolitics nerds everywhere did a double-take when news initially broke that ASEAN would hold these drills in the South China Sea: ASEAN seemed so divided, but was suddenly muscling up in a key hotspot.

With these exercises, ASEAN had wanted to send a message about its own unity and strength. But now, with this public spat and change of venue, ASEAN has ended up sending a rather different message to the world.

Also worth noting:

  • A 2016 international tribunal ruling said China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea had no legal basis. China boycotted the case, which was brought by the Philippines.
  • China has contributed ~44% of all foreign direct investment into Cambodia since 1994.
  • Indonesia authorised the first ever deployment of two nuclear-capable US bombers to its territory earlier this week.
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