MANILA, Philippines – The first ever naval exercises between the United States and member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have begun in the waters of eastern Thailand, said the US Embassy in Manila on Tuesday, September 3.
The ASEAN-US Maritime Exercise (AUMX) includes 8 warships and 4 aircraft from 7 countries, and more than 1,000 personnel from all 11 participants, which are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, and the US.
The Philippine Navy sent the Del Pilar-class patrol ship BRP Ramon Alcaraz with around 200 navy sailors and marines led by Captain Hilarion Cesista.
The US contingent includes the littoral combat ship USS Montgomery, the guided-missile destroyer USS Wayne E. Meyer, 3 MH-60 helicopters, and a P-8 Poseidon aircraft.
The drills kicked off on Monday, September 2, at the Sattahip Naval Base in Thailand, and will run until Friday, September 6.
Rather than being a "symbolic event," the exercise is aimed at "providing value for each of the countries" by exchanging information and building interoperability, US Navy Rear Admiral Joey Tynch III, commander of the Logistics Group, Western Pacific, told reporters in a briefing via teleconference on Tuesday.
"The challenges we face in the maritime domain extend beyond what any single nation can handle, and that's where partners and allies are force multipliers for peace and interoperability. That's an unparalleled advantage that no competitor or rival can match. I fully believe we are stronger when we sail together," added Tynch, who oversees the US Navy's security cooperation in Southeast Asia.
The ASEAN member states are faced with the increasingly dominant China, which has reclaimed features and built military installations in the South China Sea. These moves violate international maritime law, according to the July 12, 2016 international arbitral ruling on the Philippines' maritime dispute with China.
Chinese vessels have been found foraying beyond its waters more frequently. There have been at least 12 instances of Chinese warships, survey vessels, and fishing boats sailing unauthorized through Philippine waters. Vietnam has condemned the repeated entries of a Chinese survey ship in Vanguard Bank.
Without any resolution in sight to the overlapping sovereignty claims in the South China Sea by several countries including the Philippines, ASEAN and China are working on a Code of Conduct to govern the behavior of their vessels in the strategic sea lane.
As China grows more assertive in its bid to dominate the region, the US has urged its regional allies like the Philippines to push back through lawful means, as it maintained freedom of navigation and overflight operations by sending its warships and aircraft to patrol the South China Sea.
China has bristled at US efforts to bolster its presence and influence over Southeast Asia, insisting that "outsiders" must not meddle in the region's affairs.
Although the US has been conducting military exercises and port visits in the region for decades, Tynch said AUMX "represents a step forward" in multilateral cooperation.
"These engagements, they increase our collective abilities, they build trust and confidence, and they open lines of communication that last, truly, for a generation," Tynch added.
For the Philippines, participating in AUMX and other international naval drills marks a significant improvement in its capabilities, and shows the Philippine Navy's "credibility," Chief of Naval Staff Rear Admiral Loumer Bernabe said at the send-off ceremony for the BRP Ramon Alcaraz in Manila on August 29. – Rappler.com
JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.