Indonesia moves base of ASEAN military exercises from South China Sea

Indonesia has moved Asean’s first joint military exercise to a location far from the South China Sea, where several countries, including China, have territorial claims, its military said on Thursday.

The non-combat exercises for members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) were originally scheduled to take place in waters south of the South China Sea, which are claimed by Beijing.

But the September 18-25 exercise will be moved entirely from the strategic waterway to the southern Natuna Sea area in Indonesian waters, military spokesman Julius Widjojono said.

„The exercise does not focus on combat, so it is more suitable for the south where there is direct contact with people,” he said, adding that the exercises will be held in and around Batam Island at the mouth of the Straits of Malacca.

ASEAN’s unity has been tested for years by the rivalry between the United States and China, played out in the South China Sea, a route for $3.5 trillion in annual shipping trade. Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia compete with Beijing, which asserts sovereignty over the vast sea that includes parts of Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.

China claims sovereignty over the region along an elaborate 'nine-dash line’ based on its historical maps, which an international arbitration court ruled in 2016 had no legal basis.

ASEAN has been pushing to conclude a long-awaited maritime code of conduct with China, and many of its members have had run-ins with Beijing in recent months.

Indonesia’s military, which leads ASEAN this year, said the decision to relocate was independent and had „no interference” from other countries.

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It also said that Cambodia and Myanmar did not respond to an invitation to a preparatory meeting for the exercise held among ASEAN countries on Monday. Both the military junta leaders of Myanmar and Cambodia have close ties to China. (Reporting by Stanley Vidiando; Editing by Kanupriya Kapoor)

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