Strategic Signaling Via Multilateral Exercises in the Asia-Pacific

The Rim of the Pacific exercise (RIMPAC)

The Scope and number of military exercises have increased manifolds in the Asia-Pacific region. It shows that naval and maritime competition is underway in the region and can be attributed to the changing balance of power. Both Beijing and Washington ramped up military engagement with nations in the Asia-Pacific to undermine power, position, and influence of other. It is important to highlight that; multilateral exercises constitute one of the most open forms of military diplomacy, making it increasingly prominent part of foreign policy. These multilateral exercises serve a dual purpose: they serve as a platform to showcase or exhibit military might through the display of weapons, highly-trained soldiers, and systems, while also used as a way to send subtle messages to potential adversaries. In addition to that, these exercises facilitate the exchange of standard operating procedures (SOPs), methodologies, cutting edge technologies, and provide opportunity to evaluate the performance and identify shortcomings of armed forces without the necessity of engaging in actual armed conflict. Moreover, these exercises allow different countries to strengthen interoperability, integration, and hone tactical abilities. 

The Asia-Pacific region appears to have emerged as the central playing field in the ongoing strategic competition between the US and China. The developments that are taking place in the region were unthinkable or unimaginable few years ago. At present, three distinct forms of strategic signaling are underway, with the primary actors being China, the US & its allies, and ASEAN states. Each of these actors is implementing unique strategies within the Asia-Pacific region. For instance, China perceives the US engagement in the region as a threat to its regional domination and core national interests. It views US military presence, alliances like Quad & AUKUS as the main obstacles to its regional ambitions to reclaim what it perceives as lost territory – (Island of Taiwan). In an effort to deter the US and its allies, China is actively building and strengthening its military capabilities. Another prominent aspect of China’s maritime strategy is enforcement of Maritime law and Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2AD). The purpose of this is to restrict foreign military access to the region through the deployment of advanced weaponry and system. 

Moreover, China has enhanced the visibility of strategic assets in the strategic waterways. It has conducted military exercises with Laos, Singapore, and Cambodia. Along with that, China & Russia conducted “Northern/Interaction-2023” near Sea of Japan that analysts say are the latest sign of deepening cooperation between the two military powerhouses. Another significant exercise is on the horizon, with a proposal from Russia. Reportedly, the trilateral naval drills between China, Russia, and North Korea came just days before Kim traveled to Russia to attend Eastern Economic Forum.  Analysts termed the proposal as a direct response to the new Japan-ROK-US security arrangement; US led security alliances, including the Quad, AUKUS, and NATO. 

Meanwhile, the US under the Biden administration has beefed up security alliances and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region to strengthen defense capabilities, promote security cooperation, and to act against any Chinese attempt to impose its hegemony. This highlights the US regional policy and its commitment to maintain & sustain Liberal order in the Asia-Pacific region. The Biden administration has actively engaged in both multilateral and bilateral exercises with its regional allies like Japan, Australia, India, South Korea, the Philippines, and Singapore. Moreover, it has played a crucial role in promoting greater cooperation among its allies, facilitating their own bilateral naval exercises. This collective effort aims to deter potential aggression from states such as China and North Korea. 

It is worth mentioning here that, not too long ago, the naval balance was apparently in China’s favor. However, recent developments indicate that it started to swing back to the US and its allies. The US has participated in the largest iteration of exercise “Talisman Sabre” in Australia, “Malabar-23” with Australia, India and Japan, “Pacific Vanguard” with Japan, Australia, and South Korea, “Noble Wolf” with Japan, Australia, and Canada, “Noble Typhoon” with Canada, France, and Japan. This trend clearly demonstrates a significant surge in naval engagement within the region by the US and its allies. The US-led alliance based partnerships primarily bilateral, continue to be critical elements of the Asian strategic culture, with countries like Japan and Australia shouldering greater responsibility for regional security. Furthermore, it is becoming evident that European countries could also play pivot roles in a way that might not have been envisaged even a few years ago. These all efforts by the US and its allies aimed to uphold freedom of navigation & open seas, adherence to international law, and unimpeded lawful commerce in international waters. 

The ASEAN countries are anxious about the unfolding situation in the Asia-Pacific region. They are feeling the heat of strategic competition between the US and China. They find themselves in a delicate position and are trying hard to balance their relationship with both the US and China. Emphasizing a non-partisan approach, as they want to refrain from aligning with any particular political bloc. This approach was signaled when Indonesia hosted a multilateral naval exercise “Komodo”. The exercise was conducted amid simmering tensions in the region. One noteworthy aspect of the exercise is that among its 36 participants, many have recently experienced bitter conflicts and disputes. Notably, it includes rivals such as South and North Korea, China and US, as well as India and Pakistan. However, all of them have willingly come together for this multilateral exercise, setting aside their differences for the time being. Moreover, the world’s largest archipelago via multilateral exercise underlined its stance that they do not support the element of competition in the region. Instead, it advocates for a reliance on rules-based regimes and mechanisms to ensure the settlement of longstanding disputes to avert a major military confrontation in the Asia-Pacific region. 

The pursuit of incompatible goals in the Asia-Pacific region points to a concerning trend. The regional environment has become more complex, tension filled, and charged. It is expected that competition between the US and China will intensify and managing the evolving naval balance will become even more challenging. The assertive deployments and operations of major players further complicate predicting the future of events at sea. Moreover, the gathering of many rival warships in the proximity suggests a worrying trend. The situation is volatile and any accidental incident at sea could lead to a serious crisis in the region. As nothing can be predicted with absolute certainty, and nothing can be ruled out, the Asia-Pacific finds itself in a precarious and uncertain landscape.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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