Exercising Maritime Asia

By Mira Rapp-Hooper
Monday, March 9, 2015, 7:07 AM

The latest installation of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative covers the annual military exercises that take place in East Asia each winter and spring. If you’re interested in the details of these exercises (participating countries, troops, services, exercise specifics), you can use our interactive maps to find out more. But our expert analysis points to the fact that the role of military exercises in East Asia is changing. Combined military exercises can serve several purposes. They can strengthen coordination among allies, establish presence and bolster deterrence, and even help to reduce tensions between potential adversaries. Recent exercises in Asia seem to signal evolution along all of these dimensions.

First, on the intra-alliance dimension, Gregory Poling argues that Washington has a public relations problem on its hands when it comes to Thailand and a longstanding military exercise, Cobra Gold. The exercise has evolved in recent years to include seven countries and is a symbol of Washington’s larger engagement in Asia. Because of Thailand’s May 2014 military coup, however, the United States made the decision to scale back the exercise. Washington can’t be seen as fully embracing the junta, but Thailand is too important to abandon as a long-term ally, and U.S. moves in that direction could cause it to turn towards China. So, Cobra Gold continued this year, albeit in a symbolically pared-back form, and the ruling military junta has publicly insisted that the persistence of Cobra Gold indicates that all is well in the US-Thai relationship. Washington reduced the number of U.S. troops involved in the exercise and focused on non-combat operations, limiting live-fire exercises. This all underscores the unease it feels about the new government of a longtime ally.

Katrin Katz examines the role of Key Resolve and Foal Eagle in the US-South Korea alliance. These drills are a mainstay for Washington and Seoul, and always drum up predictable consternation from Pyongyang, which insists that they are preparations for war. In some years these exercises have passed with only minimal kerfuffle from the North, however, and in others, they have brought the Peninsula to near-crisis. How to explain this variation? Katz argues that the atmosphere around these drills tends to proxy the broader state of North-South and US-North Korean relations. In 2013, the exercises began shortly after Pyongyang’s third nuclear test, and included the North’s declaration that it had nullified the 1953 Korean War armistice, and resulted in the United States flying B-52 and B-2 aircraft over the Peninsula. In 2014, in contrast, the drills passed with minimal fanfare because Seoul and Pyongyang were in the midst of negotiating family reunions. The United States also scaled down the military hardware it involved in the exercise and all parties. Katz suggests that, all else equal, the 2015 exercises are more likely to look like 2014 than 2013.

When it comes to the role of military exercises in communicating presence and deterrence, Michael McDevitt argues that the United States may want to update its approach to exercises in the South China Sea. Washington has already been increasing its presence in Southeast Asia by concluding access agreements with the Philippines and Singapore. But with the security of allies and partners in the South China Sea increasingly a concern, McDevitt argues that the United States might use military exercises to reinforce its message of presence. He focuses on a multi-month series of rolling US Navy training exercises known as CARAT. McDevitt argues that the United States should consider increasing the bilateral segments that involve Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Washington should also try to reach an agreement with Vietnam to allow it to join, and invite participation from states like South Korea, Australia, and Japan. As Gary Roughead notes in a video interview, however, resources are a significant constraint on the temptation to expand exercises, as the United States often ends up footing the bill for other countries’ participation. When it comes to the South China Sea, both McDevitt and Roughead note that we are most likely to see an increase in unilateral exercises, as China also attempts to signal its presence there.

Finally, we come to the role of military exercises between potential adversaries. Chris Johnson argues that the Chinese military has become more active in regional military exercises, and that this is consistent with Xi Jinping’s overall foreign policy agenda, which seeks to demonstrate China’s influence as a major power. The most obvious example of this is the steady improvement in ties between the PLA and the US military under Xi, which has in turn, signaled to other regional players that they need not make a stark choice between aligning with Washington and aligning with Beijing. China has joined the US-led Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC), begun to exercise with Malaysia, signed a humanitarian and disaster relief agreement with ASEAN, joined a US-Australia drill, and participated in Cobra Gold. Roughead observes that China also seems to be abandoning a longstanding aversion to multilateral exercises, which can be more messy and political than simpler bilateral drills. As Johnson notes, however, Beijing continues to struggle with the tensions between wanting to signal its peaceful rise and taking an uncompromising stance on its sovereignty claims. Whether or not regional exercise participation provides it a venue for reconciling these forces remains to be seen.

One can envision any number of near-term changes to regular military exercises in the Pacific. On President Obama’s recent trip to India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed an interest in closer maritime security cooperation and a desire to pursue a quadrilateral security relationship between India, the United States, Australia, and Japan. This could easily result in India’s expanded participation in multilateral exercises in the near future. Additionally, in the next several months, Japan is expected to amend domestic legislation to make it legal for Tokyo to exercise its right to collective self-defense. This will pave the way for an expanded Japanese presence in exercises and other forms of military cooperation. These developments and this week’s analysis all suggest that military exercises are of great importance to allies, adversaries, and to regional deterrence. But like so much else, their regular conduct and evolution indicate that they are also politics by other means.