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First Asean army drills held amid regional tensions

First Asean army drills held amid regional tensions

BATAM, Indonesia: Militaries from members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) began their first-ever joint exercises in Indonesia on Tuesday, with a Myanmar representative present despite the regional organization’s ban on its junta leaders.

Southeast Asian countries have participated in multinational defense drills before, but these are the first featuring just the 10-member bloc, which is battling perceptions of irrelevance on major regional issues such as the ongoing turmoil in Myanmar and disputes in the South China Sea.

MARCHING ORDERS Personnel from the Singaporean and Brunei militaries march during the opening ceremony of the noncombat Asean Solidarity Exercise at the Batu Ampar Port on Batam island, Indonesia on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023. AP PHOTO

These are noncombat exercises, however, with member forces training in areas such as humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, rescue operations and joint maritime patrols, according to host Indonesia.

“By uniting together, we can maintain stability in the region for the favor of the people,” Indonesian armed forces chief Margono Yudo told reporters on Batam island.

He said forces from every nation in the bloc, including Myanmar, are taking part in the five-day Asean Solidarity Exercise, but did not detail the extent of that country’s participation.

The crisis-hit nation was represented at the exercise’s opening ceremony on Batam by a defense attaché.

An Indonesian military official later told Agence France-Presse (AFP) on condition of anonymity that Myanmar would only attend the drills as an observer.

Myanmar has been ravaged by deadly violence since Feb. 1, 2021, when the military deposed Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government in a coup and launched a bloody crackdown on dissent.

The leaders of its junta have since been banned from Asean meetings, and the bloc’s efforts to defuse the crisis have been fruitless so far.

Indonesia has also denied that the drills are aimed at countering China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims almost in its entirety.

China has angered Indonesia, the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations in recent years by entering parts of the waterway they claim.

It has developed artificial islands in the region and outfitted some with military facilities and runways.

In response to the drills, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Mao Ning on Tuesday said that Beijing’s position on the South China Sea remained “consistent.”

Initially, organizers had planned to hold the exercises in the North Natuna Sea, which Indonesia says is inside its exclusive economic zone.

But China also sends patrols there occasionally to assert its historic claim to the area.

After talks between Southeast Asian military chiefs in June, the exercise was moved to the South Natuna Sea, avoiding the disputed waters.

Cambodia, China’s leading regional ally, had refused to confirm participation at the initial location, but is now attending.

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