What's in the New China-Southeast Asia Expanded Drills Talk?
Plus IPEF and critical minerals; managing Indonesia's energy transition dynamics and much more.
Welcome back to ASEAN Wonk BulletBrief!
This week we’re looking at:
Notable developments mapped in our new WonkWatch section, including new U.S.-Japan-Philippines trilateral drills; how Thailand is handling its F-35 decision; and reports of Malaysia “expelling” Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy from the country
China’s coming expanded drills with Southeast Asian states
The critical minerals component of Southeast Asia’s stakes that surfaced at recent Indo-Pacific Economic Framework talks in Detroit
Reads on Myanmar’s intelligence war; Indonesia’s energy transition and measuring Mekong river risks
Note: Thank you all for the positive feedback on the introduction of our new ASEAN WonkWatch section! We’re looking to roll out a couple more efforts to add value for our readers, so if you have thoughts about what might be useful/topics you’d like covered, please do reach out.
Let’s dive in!
This Week’s WonkCount: 2,598 words (~12 minutes reading time)
What’s in China’s Expanded Southeast Asia Drills Talk?
What’s Behind It
China announced it will soon be holding a new multinational drill with Southeast Asian states. The Southern Theater Command of the People’s Liberation Army first disclosed that military delegations from China and five Southeast Asian countries – Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam – held an initial planning conference for Exercise Aman Youyi-2023 in Guangzhou, and this was reported by Chinese state media.
The drills build off of previous efforts by Beijing to expand what was initially a bilateral exercise. Aman-Youyi was originally a China-Malaysia exercise, and had expanded to include Thailand in 2018 before COVID-19 had led to a suspension of most of these drills. This comes at a time when we have seen some bilateral exercises resume following the easing of the pandemic, with recent cases in point being Cambodia, Laos and Singapore (see table below).
Why It Matters
Should the drills take place as characterized, they would constitute the broadest effort yet by China to expand a designated bilateral exercise in Southeast Asia to date within its broader security partnerships, despite the challenges Beijing has faced in this realm. China’s exercises in Southeast Asia to date have not been able to scale up this quickly. Apart from Aman Youyi, the widest array of Southeast Asian states Beijing has been able to get for an exercise was under an ASEAN banner rather than a bilateral one, with the inaugural ASEAN-China maritime exercise in 2018 seeing nine ASEAN countries participating in some capacity.
While this is a single, modest datapoint and one facet of Southeast Asian states engaging Beijing – separate from their ties with Washington – the trend of expansion and environment of intensified U.S.-China competition will nonetheless bring greater scrutiny on these activities. The pattern of expanding bilateral drills and utilizing them as hubs for wider networking is something we have seen Washington deploy for decades in Southeast Asia at a much bigger scale given its much longer record on this score in the region relative to China – whether it be in case of Cobra Gold in Thailand historically or more recently with the Balikatan exercises in the Philippines or Garuda Shield with Indonesia (see table below). That networking continues to build where opportunities arise — just this week, the United States, Japan and Philippines kicked off their first-ever trilateral coast guard drills.
The showcasing of these exercise should not detract from the serious security issues China faces with Southeast Asian states, which limits the advances it can make and complicates the broader national environment within which policymakers operate. For instance, in just the past week alone, Chinese vessels have been in several tense encounters with Vietnamese vessels and have been suspected in Malaysia of being involved in efforts to plunder World War II-era British warship wrecks.
Where It’s Headed
With the planned exercise now publicized, the focus will shift to the specifics on aspects such as the focus of the drills and levels of participation. Thus far, details like exercise phases, number of personnel and kinds of equipment have not been publicly disclosed. To illustrate the importance of such metrics, it is worth recalling that while the China-ASEAN maritime exercise was designated as an “ASEAN-wide” engagement, only five Southeast Asian countries sent ships and the other four sent observers.
Apart from this single exercise, it will be interesting to watch if Beijing is able to repeat its broadening of bilateral exercises in other contexts, as part of a bigger push to boost security links with Southeast Asian states. Should this occur, it would suggest that China is able to make inroads on a wider scale in the subregion beyond just a single exercise, especially if these are accompanied by quantitative and qualitative boosts on metrics like equipment, personnel numbers and functional areas covered. Other components of security ties, such as dialogues and exchanges, also warrant attention, along with more headline-grabbing developments like Ream Naval Base in Cambodia.
Managing Indonesia’s Big Coal Challenge; Myanmar’s Intelligence Wars; Calculating Mekong River Risks
“[C]anceling nine units of coal plants totaling 3 GW currently under construction will have no effect on reliability or cost, and…early retirement is the cheapest option in terms of investment and carbon coast when compared to achieving the 2050 net-zero goal,” observes a novel study by the Institute for Essential Services Reform think tank in Indonesia, the country with the third largest coal pipeline in the world after China and India. Based on granular calculations down to each plant, the study finds that just preventing these nine plants (see graphic above) would avoid nearly 300 million tons of emissions for less than 80 cents per ton of carbon dioxide, though there would be other issues that would need to be managed from a cost and legal perspective, and this would not be sufficient to meet Jakarta’s target under the Just Energy Transition Partnership announced with the Group of Seven (G-7) economies, where Jakarta has also been registering its own separate concerns (link).
“Unless there is a dramatic change in circumstances, the current strategic stalemate looks likely to continue. If that is the case, may not be the battle of bombs and bullets that decides the outcome of the civil war in Myanmar, but the battle of wits and wiles,” notes an article over at The Interpreter analyzing the role of intelligence by both the State Administrative Council (SAC) and the National Unity Government (NUG). The article includes a look at the various intelligence-related bodies being set up by opposition forces in Myanmar in response to the state’s long record of utilizing spies and informants, which is now being paired with technologies such as drones and advanced surveillance equipment (link).
“Like Cambodia, the Mekong River Basin is essential to Laos. However, Laos’ exposure is higher as the river accounts for two-thirds of Laos’ surface water and houses over 90 percent of its population and GDP…Vietnam faces low clustered risks…however, 19 percent of Vietnam’s national installed capacity is located in the Mekong River Basin,” notes a report by Hong Kong-based think tank China Water Risk that attempts to comprehensively assess the relative national risk exposure to rivers for Asian countries. Among Southeast Asian states (see graphic below), Laos is rated as a high risk country; Myanmar and Thailand are at medium-high; Cambodia is at low-medium; and Vietnam is low (link).