China to portray ‘the good neighbor’ in naval drills with Malaysia, Thailand

China will send three warships plus transport aircraft and about 700 personnel to participate in a naval exercise this weekend with vessels from Malaysia and Thailand, the defense ministry said.

The nine-day exercise is called Peace and Friendship 2018 and will be held in the Strait of Malacca, off Port Dickson and Port Klang in Malaysia.

The South China Morning Post reported:

China’s defense ministry said the exercise was intended to demonstrate the common will of the armed forces of the three countries to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea region, strengthen practical exchanges and cooperation, and enhance their ability to jointly respond to various security threats.

“It does not target any country,” it added.

The exercise is the second one involving China in the Malacca Strait, a body of water linking the Indian and Pacific Oceans and is one of the world’s most traveled shipping lanes.

The drill will follow a visit by Defense Secretary James Mattis to Singapore and Vietnam during a meeting of defense ministers from nations belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). That meeting begins Monday.

Analysis: In attending the ASEAN meeting, one of Mattis’ primary objectives is to reassure Asian allies that the U.S. defense commitment to the region is solid, something that needs to happen given the recent near-collision in the South China Sea between U.S. and Chinese destroyers, an action Washington labeled as provocative and dangerous. He’s also likely encouraging them to join U.S. efforts to keep Beijing’s aggression in check.

As for China, while these drills are scheduled well in advance, this one comes at a time when Beijing really needs to reassure its neighbors, thanks to its aggressive behavior in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. 

But will it be enough? Not likely.

Ranking U.S. diplomatic and military officials have made several trips to the Indo-Pacific since President Trump took office for two principal reasons: To shore up alliances but also to convince our friends in the region that whenever Trump talks about nations ‘paying their fair share’ for U.S. security arrangements and pulling out of what he believes were ‘bad trade deals’ he’s not talking about leaving them on their own.

Asia is still a developing region and home to billions of people. The U.S. has vital interests there as well as historic allies. So it’s not realistic for anyone to think that Trump (or any U.S. president) will abandon that part of the world. The country that needs to understand that more than any other, however, is China. Yet, Beijing does not appear ready to do that.

It must always be said that China is a revisionist power and is bent on reshaping the global order in a way that gives Beijing much more say and influence. Anytime a revisionist power goes up against the established order there is a much higher likelihood of conflict, historically speaking. And right now the established global order is ‘managed’ by the United States.

In the meantime, China will pretend to be the good neighbor, but Asian leaders understand better than anyone who their real friends are.


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