Jakarta, 22 June, 2023 (GNP): Indonesia, as the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has announced a relocation of an upcoming joint military exercise out of disputed waters in the South China Sea. The decision comes amid escalating tensions between China and several regional states over maritime and territorial disputes.
Originally planned to take place in the North Natuna Sea within Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), the ASEAN Solidity Exercise (ENatuna) or Asec01N will now be held in uncontested waters around Batam island and the South Natuna region. The revised location was chosen to facilitate the nature of the non-combat drills, which include joint maritime patrols, medical evacuations, and natural disaster relief operations.
The ENatuna exercise marks a significant milestone for ASEAN, as it is the first time that all 10 member states, along with Timor-Leste, have come together to conduct military exercises as a unit.
While ASEAN countries have previously engaged in naval drills with external powers such as the United States and China, this joint military exercise showcases their collective solidarity and commitment to regional stability.
Indonesia’s decision to move the drills away from the disputed waters follows increasing concerns over China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. The Natuna Islands area has been a source of friction between Indonesia and China, with Jakarta raising objections to frequent incursions by Chinese fishing boats and coast guard vessels into its EEZ. While Indonesia maintains that it does not have a maritime and territorial dispute with China, it has taken steps to assert its sovereignty, including renaming the area the North Natuna Sea in 2017.
The shift in location for the ENatuna exercise is unrelated to the ongoing maritime and territorial disputes, according to Indonesian military officials. Julius Widjojono explained that the new location near Batam island was selected due to its suitability for the specific drills, with priority given to areas prone to natural disasters.
Notably, Cambodia’s government has recently denied participating in a joint ASEAN drill in the South China Sea. While Indonesia had initially announced the exercises following ASEAN defense officials’ meetings in Bali, Cambodia issued a statement clarifying that no decision had been made and that it was establishing a working group to further examine the matter.
The decision to relocate the ENatuna exercise was made during the planning meeting on Tuesday after discussions between the Indonesian military and several ASEAN counterparts. Cambodia and Myanmar, which maintain strong ties with China, opted not to participate in the planning conference, according to the Indonesian military.