China, Malaysia, Thailand Joint Military Drill Indicates New Era in China-ASEAN Relations

After this summer’s successful strategic joint military exercise between China’s People’s Liberation Army and the various armed forces of ASEAN nations, this month China along with key ASEAN members Malaysia and Thailand will conduct joint military exercises in Malaysian waters and on the land of two Malaysian states aimed at working to foster deeper cooperation against the related threats of piracy, terrorism and narcotics trafficking. This development constitutes an incredibly positive trend in the framework of the history of greater cooperation between ASEAN and China.

The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) was initially founded in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. The founding of the group was meant to indicate a new era in positive relations between Indonesia and Malaysia in particular after the confrontation on the island of Borneo/Kalimantan which had raged between 1963 and 1967. The other feature of early ASEAN was that all of the countries were either long standing or newly consecrated partners of the US and the wider “capitalist world”.

This ethos of ASEAN changed in the 1990s when the communist states of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia joined the group of nations along with traditionally isolated Myanmar. Today, the group represents one of the most economically dynamic parts of the world and as such, ASEAN’s structures aim at promoting internal free trade while ASEAN currently has free trading agreements with a number of nations including China, South Korea, Japan, India, New Zealand and Australia. ASEAN also remains opposed to nuclear proliferation, national hegemony and focuses on a co-equal structure where one state cannot dominate any other.

Since the 1980s, China has become a crucial economic partner to multiple ASEAN nations and today, China remains the biggest trading partner of ASEAN as a whole. China further works with its ASEAN partners to build long term sustainable partnerships in the context of the Belt and Road initiative that will see ASEAN act as the south-eastern terminus of this multi-continental trade and exchange superhighway.

As China is the economy with the world’s highest purchasing power parity (PPP) while ASEAN represents a dynamic, growing and diverse economic grouping of nations committed to peace that each have historic connections to China, it is only natural for China and ASEAN to cooperate more intensely on a win-win model in an age of growing global connectivity.

This cooperation not only includes investment, increased trade, cultural exchange and joint scientific and medical research, but it also necessarily includes security cooperation. China and its ASEAN partners face many of the same regional security threats whether it be terrorism, pirates near the Straits of Malacca and the narcotics trade. As mutual non-state threats which every north east and south east Asian nation must confront in one way or another, it is important for the Chinese military superpower to work closely with all members of ASEAN.

This is why the forthcoming Thai, Malaysian, Chinese joint military exercises will be crucial in respect of helping to establishment a long term model for joint security in an deeply inter-connected region of the world.

As part of China’s current ‘3+X’ format for open ended long term cooperation with ASEAN, many crucial goals have already been achieved including the overall increase of trade between ASEAN as a whole and China. China also recently overtook the United States as the number one destination for Vietnamese exports. This is especially significant as Vietnam has in recent years been the ASEAN member with the most disagreements with Beijing although in an new era of dialogue based problem solving, this too is improving. Likewise, after being pioneered by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, ASEAN has collectively adopted a new approach to South China Sea disputes which prioritises a harmonious long term economic partnership between ASEAN and China over hostility in areas which constitute the maritime borders between China and its ASEAN partners.

While it remains unfortunate that provocative violations of Chinese maritime sovereignty by the US attempt to sow divisions between China and its ASEAN partners, the reality is that this year has ushered in a new phase of dialogue and cooperation between ASEAN states with South China Sea concerns and China. After Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte pioneered a win-win mutual exploitation of resources initiative with Beijing in the South China Sea, the spirit of Duterte’s bilateral agreement helped to shape the letter and spirit of the new draft Code of Conduct (COC) that was adopted this summer at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers summit in Singapore.

The idea of any form of hostility between an ASEAN member and China in the 21st century runs contrary to both ASEAN’s modern ethos of peace through prosperity and China’s own ethos of non-intervention and win-win cooperation with all nations. The more holistic the Sino-ASEAN partnership becomes, the more difficult it will be for both state and non-state provocateurs to threaten damage to this vital partnership for all of Asia.

In this sense, while in the short term this month’s Chinese, Malaysian and Thai joint military drills represent a proactive means of tackling joint security concerns, in the longer term it is one more step in a positive direction towards unshakeable win-win relations between every corner of China and every corner of ASEAN.

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