China’s ‘Choke Point’: ASEAN Moves Its Military Drills From Contested Waters Of South China Sea To Malacca Strait

With the first-ever ASEAN drills planned for later this year, Indonesia has changed the location from the contested waters of the South China Sea to an island near China’s most valuable chokepoint, the Malacca Strait.

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According to the Indonesian Military, the service has decided to relocate the first-ever ASEAN joint military exercise outside the South China Sea (SCS). Indonesia is currently the chair of the 10-member ASEAN bloc, with several members having converging claims with Beijing in the contested SCS waters.

The Indonesian military spokesman Julius Widjojono announced that the September 18–25 drill will now take place in the South Natuna Sea.

On its part, China asserts sovereignty over the region through a broad ‘nine-dash line’ based on its historical maps. While the International arbitration court determined in 2016 that these claims had no legal justification, China has remained undeterred in its approach to intimidating other claimants (Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Brunei).

Against that backdrop and amid recent aggressive run-ins between the PLA and the Coast Guards and Navies of The Philippines and Vietnam, the ASEAN non-combat drills have been relocated from the southernmost parts of the South China Sea. However, these incidents were not officially acknowledged by the grouping in any joint communication.

Indonesia, on its part, maintains that this is an independent decision and was taken following an initial planning conference for the joint exercises held by representatives of all the members of the bloc.

However, ASEAN countries Cambodia and Myanmar, which have close relations with China, declined to attend the planning conference.

If whispers and speculative reports are anything to go by, there is an indication that a close-Chinese ally Cambodia had objected to a joint ASEAN drill in the disputed South China Sea. Earlier, a report in its mouthpiece stated that the initial announcement of the drills “does not indicate ASEAN joint military drills in the South China Sea.”

Although the new location of the drills is way less controversial than the South China Sea waters, it may not entirely be a neutral ground between Jakarta and Beijing. At least for the last ten years, the waters around the Natuna Islands have been the subject of friction between Indonesia and China.

Despite Jakarta’s denial that it is involved in a maritime or territorial dispute with China, the Chinese coast guard and fishing boats are officially known to have repeatedly violated Jakarta’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

In addition to that, the site of the exercises falls close to the Malacca Strait, as announced by the Indonesian spokesperson. This could essentially add an all-new paradigm to the first-ever ASEAN drills, which according to military commentators, are likely to upset the Chinese government.

ASEAN To Carry Out Drills At China’s Choke Point

As per the statement made by the spokesperson of the Indonesian military, “This exercise is focused not on combat, so it is best suited for the south that is in direct contact with the people.” He further added that the drills would be held in and around Batam island at the mouth of the Malacca Strait.

The Strait of Malacca is a strategic waterway between Indonesia and Malaysia through which most Chinese imports pass.

China has identified the Strait of Malacca as the primary checkpoint of the Sea Lines of Communications (SLOC), which connects the People’s Republic of China’s main ports to the Gulf nations and the African and European markets.

There is a term called “Malacca Dilemma,” which was first used by the country’s then-president Hu Jintao in November 2003, alluding to China’s susceptibility to a naval blockade at the strait, which is the shortest sea route between the Middle East and East Asia.

The prospect of establishing a naval blockade has been enhanced due to rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific region.

The strait is a small body of water just 65–250 kilometers wide, making it simple for neighboring countries to shut it with significant power. This poses a particular challenge to China due to regional as it is surrounded by countries like Indonesia, and Malaysia, allies of the United States like Singapore, and China’s age-old foe India.

In contrast to the navies of these countries that lie close to the strait, the Chinese navy is far from the strait. So, it has long been asserted that the US and these regional allies can weaponize this crucial chokepoint by imposing a blockade, which would impair trade, energy resources, and raw material flow in China.

As per traditional figures, at least 80% of China’s energy shipments passed through this narrow yet strategically located chokepoint. However, to offset the impact of any hypothetical blockade in the future, Beijing has been diversifying its options besides strengthening its naval power and strategies.

However, despite those concerted efforts, which are now in full swing, the Malacca Strait does remain strategic as of now.

To put the strategic value of this narrow chokepoint in perspective, China and the US have both focused their attention on the Malacca Strait besides the South China Sea, including the Spratly and Paracelsus Islands, the Philippines, which have been identified as potential flashpoints in the region between the two superpowers.

In fact, Indonesia has received enhanced attention from the United States due to its proximity to the Malacca Strait. It has largely been believed that in case of a conflict between China and the United States, Indonesia and other allies of the US could block this narrow chokepoint and choke China’s supply chains.

Strait of Malacca
File Image: China’s trading zone via Malacca Strait

China, on its part, has also been courting Indonesia to cultivate better ties with a country with clear inclinations toward the West. For instance, Beijing has pushed for increased security and military cooperation with Jakarta in recent years. Both nations coordinated cooperative naval exercises in May 2021.

More recently, the Indonesian defense minister Prabowo, his Chinese counterpart Subianto, and General Wei Fenghe met on November 18, 2022, in the Chinese city of Xi’an in the province of Shaanxi; they agreed to strengthen their military and security cooperation.

According to a geopolitical report published by Special Eurasia, Beijing aims to strengthen its bilateral ties with Jakarta to counteract Washington’s pivot towards Asia and demonstrate its continued presence in the South China Sea region. For this, it has opted for several routes, one of the most important being the economic route and investments in crucial sectors.

“Looking at Beijing’s strategy, it is a Chinese imperative to maintain and expand its authority in Indonesia with the final goals of strengthening the Chinese presence in the northern countries of the ASEAN region, primarily Myanmar, and growing investments in the North Sea Route, which interconnects Asian and European markets via the Bering Strait and the Arctic Ocean,” the report states.

Although the relocation of the drills from the contested South China Sea has attracted the most attention, the new location could be of particular significance too.

Indonesia’s geopolitical location has been increasingly placed on a high pedestal in the US Indo-Pacific strategy in recent times.

However, this may also be true symbolically, as only non-combat simulations, such as combined marine patrols, medical evacuations, and natural disaster relief missions, will be covered. Although the members of ASEAN have engaged in maritime exercises with other countries, including the US and China, they have never conducted joint military training.