Amid the intensifying great power competition between China and the United States, both countries have made strides to strengthen their influence in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. In addition to building up its presence on features it claims in the waters, China has taken a more assertive approach to countering U.S. freedom of navigation operations. The competition between the powers has increased tensions in the region, as evidenced by a dangerous encounter recently between their navies near a Chinese-controlled feature in the Spratly Islands.
China, Malaysia and Thailand will hold the nine-day Peace and Friendship 2018 joint naval exercise along the Strait of Malacca starting Oct. 20. The drill will be held in the waters off Malaysia's Port Dickson and Klang. China announced Oct. 14 that it will send a combination of three destroyers and frigates, plus two shipborne helicopters, three Il-76 transport aircraft and 692 service personnel to participate. A statement by the Chinese Defense Ministry noted that the exercise was intended to "demonstrate the common will ... to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea region" and is not intended to target any country.
Why It Matters
The exercise represents a major step by Beijing as it seeks to increase cooperation with other Southeast Asian states in response to the growing U.S. naval posture in the South China Sea. The United States has assembled a loose security bloc of regional allies and partners such as Japan, Australia and increasingly Vietnam as it works to balance against China's maritime assertiveness in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.
In response, China has made efforts to increase cooperation on a number of fronts with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It has been working, for example, with the Philippines to jointly develop resource management and energy exploration efforts in disputed waters near the island nation. It has also taken steps to build trust at the multilateral level. Over the past two years, China and the ASEAN have adopted an agreement on the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea and a maritime emergency hotline. They also have moved forward on the long-stalled negotiation over the code of conduct in the South China Sea.
While the upcoming exercises are not the first for China in the strategic Strait of Malacca (it has participated in staged escort exercises with Malaysia in the area), the latest drills show Beijing's interest in expanding multilateral defense cooperation. China and ASEAN members' naval forces staged a computer-simulated drill in early August at Singapore's Changi Naval Base, and plans are being made to hold another joint naval drill off China's southeast coast near Zhanjiang.
For the most part, ASEAN states have welcomed China's outreach as well as the increased U.S. focus in the region, and instead of choosing sides, some have tried to take advantage of the security and economic benefits offered by each by playing one power off the other. However, as the great power competition between them intensifies, this strategy could prove untenable if U.S.-Chinese relations sour.