What's in the First ASEAN-India Maritime Exercise?
Plus first-ever US-Philippines defense guidelines; boosting the ASEAN-Plus safety net and more.
Welcome back to ASEAN Wonk BulletBrief! This time we’re looking at the significance of the first ASEAN-India maritime exercise; the release of the first-ever U.S.-Philippine alliance defense guidelines; ASEAN+3 efforts to boost regional financial safety nets post-pandemic and much more.
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Let’s dig in!
This week’s WonkCount: 2,752 words (~13 minutes reading time)
What’s in the First ASEAN-India Maritime Exercise?
The holding of the first ASEAN-India maritime exercise spotlights the ongoing management of external defense ties by Southeast Asian states and New Delhi’s advancement of security ties with the region.
What’s Behind It
The idea of an ASEAN-India Maritime Exercise (AIME) has been in the works for years. The drills were initially floated as part of a broader effort to commemorate 30 years of relations between the two sides, with 2022 having been designated “ASEAN-India Friendship Year.” After some delay, they were confirmed in principle then were set to be co-hosted by Singapore in its capacity as the country coordinator for ASEAN-India dialogue relations out to 2024. They were hosted this week right before the holding of the second ASEAN Multilateral Naval Exercise (AMNEX) in the Philippines (the first was held by Thailand back in 2017; the second was initially set to be held by Vietnam in 2020 but was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic).
The exercise is also another manifestation of India’s efforts to boost ties with Southeast Asia, including in the security realm. While challenges still remain, India has been attempting to accelerate its defense ties with individual Southeast Asian states in recent years under the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi through its Act East Policy, as well as with ASEAN as a bloc including noting synergies in areas like maritime cooperation between its own Indo-Pacific outlook and the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. Last year, ASEAN and India agreed to upgrade ties to the highest level of a comprehensive strategic partnership, and the chairman’s statement of the ASEAN-India Summit in November acknowledged not only India’s engagement of ASEAN on its own terms, but also through mechanisms like the ASEAN Quad Vaccine Initiative.
Why It Matters
This is the first drill of its kind and the latest “ASEAN+1” exercise with a dialogue partner. The drills follow a number of other similar exercises ASEAN has conducted with individual dialogue partners in recent years, including the United States, China and Russia (see table below). When AIME was held from May 2-8, co-hosted by the Republic of Singapore Navy and Indian Navy, it comprised 9 ships (from Brunei, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) and 6 aircraft (from India, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines) per Singapore’s defense ministry (MINDEF).
The holding of the exercise completes a planned boost for ASEAN-India defense ties on New Delhi’s part. Last year, India had also held its first-ever defense ministers’ informal meeting with ASEAN countries in November 2022, which occurred after ASEAN managed several similar requests from its dialogue partners. India had also earlier said that it had intended to expand government-to-government cyber cooperation with Southeast Asian countries, building off of previous manifestations of inroads made including at the Track 1.5 level.
Where It’s Headed
With the completion of this “ASEAN+1” exercise, where ASEAN moves next on this score will be interesting to watch. Already, ASEAN officials have at times been struggling with trying to balance the “Plus One” defense-related requests on various fronts, with a case in point being the holding of proliferating informal defense ministers’ meetings. In Singapore’s case, AIME was held alongside the International Maritime Defence Exhibition (IMDEX-23) and International Maritime Security Conference (IMSC) and alongside AMNEX. Successfully planning and executing such exercises is no small feat, particularly with the scrutiny on aspects including which countries sent which ships or aircraft (none of the “Plus One” exercises thus far of this kind have featured multiple ships from each of the ten ASEAN countries in a single engagement, even if they are designated as ASEAN drills).
Apart from this single exercise designated as being part of ASEAN-wide collaboration, there is the broader question of the trajectory of India’s defense and wider strategic ties with individual Southeast Asian countries. To take just one example, last August, in an address to Chulalongkorn University during a visit to Thailand, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar noted that within the seven-pillared Indo-Pacific Oceans’ Initiative (IPOI) unveiled at the East Asia Summit meeting in Bangkok in November 2019, there had been traction among some ASEAN states, including Indonesia on the marine resources pillar and Singapore on the science, technology and academic cooperation pillar.
Resizing Myanmar’s Military; Strengthening the ASEAN Plus Safety Net; Sustaining the Philippines Peace Process
“Before the coup, the military headcount was widely thought to total 300,000-400,000…The true number is almost certainly no more than half the historical benchmark,” notes a new analysis published by the U.S. Institute of Peace on the size of Myanmar’s military. The estimate presented in the analysis, based on interviews, internal military documents, historical records and casualty counts, is about 150,000 personnel, with roughly 70,000 combat soldiers and at least 21,000 service members lost through casualties, desertion and defection since the coup (see table below from the analysis). The assessment feeds into ongoing estimates about what this means for the shifting balance of power between the military and opposition forces in Myanmar’s ongoing civil war, and how the military balance could shape evolving political realities. You can read the analysis here.
“The meeting welcomes the discussion on the creation of a rapid financing facility…[and] agrees to explore possible financing structures…in order to enhance the effectiveness of the regional safety net” to help members access financing following sudden exogenous shocks such as pandemics and natural disasters, notes the joint statement from the latest ASEAN+3 finance ministers’ and central bank governors’ meeting in Incheon, South Korea released on May 2. The statement comes amid a renewed push in a longstanding discussion about strengthening regional financing arrangements (RFA) including the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization (to date, despite incremental progress on some of these initiatives, they have never actually been utilized). The statement notes that proposals will be drawn up for consideration by the end of 2023, and it is available in full here.
“For lasting peace to take hold, all responsible authorities must work to quell violent instability, which persists in pockets, and speed up elements of the process that are behind schedule,” notes a new report by the International Crisis Group on the prospects for peace in the southern Philippines. The report provides recommendations to manage the several risks to the peace process and lags in the implementation of terms agreed to in a 2014 peace deal, including the flaring up of violence, the lack of passage of major legislation covering rules for local governance as well as delays in aspects of normalization such as reintegrating rebels. The ICG’s assessment comes amid several upcoming signposts, including 2025 parliamentary elections which were intended to mark the start of full regional autonomy.