Jakarta: The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is planning its first joint military drill amid regional strain with China, Voice of America (VOA) reported.
According to the Indonesian military, the drill will be conducted in Indonesia's South Natuna Sea. During the 20th ASEAN Chief of Defence Forces Meeting in Bali, organised on June 7, ten ASEAN military chiefs agreed to conduct routine joint training and coordinated patrols in waters of the South China Sea.
There will be the army, naval and special forces involved from September 18 to September 25, despite scepticism from member state Cambodia, as per VOA.
Indonesian military spokesperson Rear Admiral Julius Widjojono said, "This exercise is focused not on combat, so it is best suited for the south that is in direct contact with the people." He added that the drills will be held in and around Batam island at the mouth of the Malacca Strait, another strategic waterway for world trade.
On Monday, the Indonesian military gathered with ASEAN military delegates in the Indonesian capital city of Jakarta to discuss preparations for the exercises, including scenarios, equipment to be used and the drill's location, as per a military press release, VOA reported.
The ASEAN exercise named Solidarity, will be held as China is asserting its claim to areas of the South China Sea that are also claimed by the ASEAN member states; Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines. This year, Indonesia holds the rotating chair of the regional bloc.
"China believes that defence and security cooperation between countries needs to be conducive to regional peace and stability. They should not escalate tensions or undermine trust between countries, still, less target any third party," the spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, Liu Pengyu said, according to VOA.
According to an Indonesian military spokesperson, Rudy Hernawan, Cambodia and Myanmar, ASEAN members maintain close ties with China and they did not participate in the planning conference held on Monday.
Mohamad Rosyidin, an international relations analyst from Diponegoro University in Semarang, Central Java, said the original location for the military drill in the South China Sea could have deterred participation by some ASEAN countries.
Earlier this month, Commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodia Armed Forces Cambodian General Vong Pisen, released a statement stating that Cambodia had formed a working group to study the proposal for a combined drill before seeking approval to participate from the Defence Ministry, as per VOA.
Citing the country's perceived closeness to China, Rosyidin further said that he doubts Cambodia will participate in the drill.
China says most of the South China Sea, or approximately 90 percent of the three million-square-kilometre South China Sea, lies within the "nine-dash line" that it views as a maritime border.
The US has responded to China's claims on the South China Sea by vowing to protect and preserve the rules-based maritime order along with ASEAN and the East Asia Summit.
"The People's Republic of China has failed to put forth a lawful, coherent maritime claim in the South China Sea (SCS), and the United States, therefore, rejects all PRC maritime claims within Indonesia's exclusive economic zone," U.S. State Department spokesperson said in an email to VOA on Tuesday.
"Freedom of the seas and adherence to international law in the South China Sea are vital interests for the entire international community, including international organizations like ASEAN," the spokesperson added.
"Together we seek the protection and preservation of respect for international law, lawful unimpeded commerce, and freedoms of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the sea."
In the past, ASEAN nations, including US and China have participated in naval exercises with other countries, but the September drills would be the first involving just the bloc.
Although some may see the exercise as a signal to China, Indonesia's military chief implied that the drills would not show ASEAN's military might.
Widjojono, the military spokesperson, said that the military drill was related to the "high risk of disaster in Asia, especially Southeast Asia."
"ASEAN is not a defence pact," said Admiral Yudo Margono at a news conference in Bali on June 6. "The drill will focus instead on disaster relief, search and rescue activities, followed by community service. The Indonesian military hopes to collaborate [with ASEAN countries] to create regional security. If we can achieve security and stability in the region, we can secure the air and sea trade routes which will then ensure people's welfare."
"The joint military drill will be a great opportunity for Southeast Asian military to better mitigate natural disasters and improve their disaster preparedness," he said. "So when a disaster occurs in one country, their neighbouring country can offer their assistance quicker," according to VOA.