Why Are Maritime Training Exercises Important?
On October 22, a first-ever maritime training exercise in the field between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China was opened and will last until October 28. All 10 ASEAN members will be participating with Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar only taking an observer’s position. The drills will cover helicopter cross-deck landings and a joint search and rescue operation with eight ships, three helicopters and more than 1,200 people participating.
It has been a struggle to reach the point of this joint maritime training exercise. The process began in 2015, but it wasn’t until 2017 that the planning for it came into fruition. It comes on the heels of the growing trade tensions between China and the US and the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. With such a complicated geopolitical situation, why is it important that these drills are finally happening?
From a political standpoint, the exercise allows for a closer relationship to be formed between China and ASEAN, based on the security & stability of the region. It is also expected to build trust after a tumultuous period due to overlapping claims for territories in the South China Sea, restriction on construction, penalties for entering the disputed waters and the like. With the agreement between China and the 10 ASEAN member countries on the Code of Conduct reached, the relationships in the region are looking to be more stable and peaceful. The launch of the joint effort for maritime safety also signals a more cooperative period, at least for now.
This show of collaboration could also be seen as a power play by China to recruit allies against the United States in hopes of gaining leverage in the ongoing trade war. However, ASEAN is known for its neutrality and has already announced plans to conduct a joint maritime exercise with the United States in 2019, thwarting the possibility of an underhanded political agenda.
The maritime safety aspect is also a vital part of these training activities. In case of a crisis, the navies of different nations will be able to more easily and efficiently mobilise and work together, avoiding mistakes and getting in each other’s way. The strategies and tactics worked out during drills will enable personnel to apply best practices to conduct effective search and rescue operations or approach distressed vessels during maritime incidents in international waters.
While not highlighted in the China-ASEAN drills, maritime training exercises can also address social issues. For example, in a bid to promote gender equality, Saudi Arabia has organised a women-only maritime and land search and rescue drill. Considered the first such exercise in Arab nations, it challenged the group of fifty women to overcome difficult conditions and hone their survival skills. It reached a successful outcome.