China's military exercises with Southeast Asian nations likely to rise in frequency and scale

A recent land and maritime exercise among China and five Southeast Asian countries highlights some emerging trends but breaks little new ground.
The opening ceremony of the Peace and Friendship-2023 military exercise in Zhanjiang, Guangdong province, China, on 13 November 2023. (Xinhua)
The opening ceremony of the Peace and Friendship-2023 military exercise in Zhanjiang, Guangdong province, China, on 13 November 2023. (Xinhua)

On 22 November, military personnel from China and five Southeast Asian countries — Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam — wrapped up a ten-day land and sea exercise in the port of Zhanjiang in southern Guangdong province.

While the exercise was not a groundbreaking event, it did reinforce emerging trends in China’s regional defence diplomacy, specifically, hosting larger multilateral drills.

The multilateral drills, called Peace and Friendship-2023 (also known as Aman Youyi-2023, putting together the Malay word for “peace” and the Chinese word for “friendship”), capped an extremely busy year for China’s armed forces in Southeast Asia.

Largest number of military personnel

Between February and September, the three services of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the China Coast Guard participated in 11 regional defence diplomacy engagements.

Peace and Friendship-2023 was not the biggest multilateral exercise China has held with its Southeast Asian neighbours in terms of the number of countries involved. In October 2018, China co-hosted (with Singapore) the ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise (ACMEX) in which the navies of nine ASEAN member states participated (landlocked Laos was an observer).

It did, however, involve the largest number of military personnel.

According to China’s defence ministry, 3,000 sailors and soldiers took part. As each of the five Southeast Asian countries contributed around 100-150 personnel, PLA forces made up over 80% of participating forces.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of Peace and Friendship-2023 was that the naval forces from two Southeast Asian claimants in the South China Sea (SCS) participated.

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A screen grab from a video featuring the opening of Peace and Friendship-2023. (Internet)

In addition to its size, Peace and Friendship-2023 was notable in that it provided further evidence of China’s move towards multilateral defence cooperation. China is undertaking this shift gradually and following in America’s footsteps. Over the past decade, the US military has transformed several of its annual bilateral exercises into multilateral drills, most notably Cobra Gold, Balikatan and Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT).

The advantage of multilateral exercises over bilateral engagements is that they help improve interoperability between and among all the participating countries. In addition, some countries are reluctant to exercise with their neighbours unless a bigger country like the US takes the lead.

Including some claimants of the South China Sea dispute

Peace and Friendship-2023 is in fact the fifth iteration of the exercise. The drills started as a table-top exercise between Malaysia and China in December 2014. The PLA and Malaysian Armed Forces then went on to hold two field exercises: a naval exercise in the Strait of Malacca in September 2015 and a small jungle warfare training exercise in November 2016.

Two years later, the drills became a multilateral engagement when the Royal Thai Armed Forces contributed a small number of troops to Peace and Friendship-2018, another naval exercise off the coast of Malaysia. Another iteration of Peace and Friendship was planned for 2020 but was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of Peace and Friendship-2023 was that the naval forces from two Southeast Asian claimants in the South China Sea (SCS) participated. (Cambodia, Laos and Thailand sent only ground troops.) Vietnam sent the Gephard-class frigate HQ-016 Quang Trung and Malaysia the Kedah-class offshore patrol vessel KD Selangor (plus some special forces troops by air).

Although both countries’ navies had exercised with the PLA Navy (PLAN) before — both bilaterally and in ACMEX — this was the first time they had done so in a China-hosted multilateral exercise. Zhanjiang, moreover, is the headquarters of the PLAN’s South Sea Fleet, which is responsible for upholding Beijing’s territorial and jurisdictional claims in the SCS. Those claims have regularly led to friction between the PLAN and the Vietnamese and Malaysian navies.

As the exercise got underway, the Philippines was already hosting Kamandag 7, a training exercise in northern Luzon involving 3,000 troops from the US, Japan, South Korea and Britain.

The Philippines casting its lot elsewhere?

It is noteworthy that the other main Southeast Asian claimant in the SCS, the Philippines, did not take part. As the exercise got underway, the Philippines was already hosting Kamandag 7, a training exercise in northern Luzon involving 3,000 troops from the US, Japan, South Korea and Britain. Kamandag-7 also began life as a bilateral exercise in 2016 before expanding into multilateral drills.

China and the Philippines are currently going through another of their tense periodic spats over Scarborough Shoal and Second Thomas Shoal. As such, it is hard to envisage the PLAN and the Philippine Navy working alongside each other in a friendly and cooperative manner. But with Vietnam and Malaysia, relations are a bit calmer with Beijing over the SCS. For Vietnam, it was another demonstration of how it balances relations with the US and China.

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A screen grab from a video featuring soldiers having a light moment during Peace and Friendship-2023. (Internet)

Overall, however, Peace and Friendship-2023 broke little new ground.

As with most of China’s previous exercises with Southeast Asian militaries, its focus was on building non-combat cooperation to address transnational threats such as piracy and maritime terrorism, as well as activities like search and rescue and humanitarian relief. Such threats are relatively uncontroversial as they are perpetrated by non-state actors or arise in the aftermath of natural disasters.

... with other regional states, and especially those that have overlapping claims with Beijing in the South China Sea, deep trust is much harder to win, and in some cases possibly unwinnable.

Moving forward, we can expect the frequency and size of China’s bilateral and multilateral military exercises with Southeast Asian countries to increase.

But whether these events will become less performative than they currently are is another matter. As I wrote in Fulcrum a few months ago, the advanced drills the US military regularly holds with its Southeast Asian counterparts require a high degree of strategic trust.

China has already established a fair degree of trust with Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, primarily because they do not have territorial or maritime boundary disputes with Beijing. But with other regional states, and especially those that have overlapping claims with Beijing in the South China Sea, deep trust is much harder to win, and in some cases possibly unwinnable.

China, however, probably calculates that events like Peace and Friendship-2023 help to reduce the trust deficit with some of its neighbours, even if only marginally.

This article was first published in Fulcrum, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute’s blogsite.

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