Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Monday expressed concern over naval exercises being conducted by the United States with Asean countries, saying they could provoke China and threaten security in the region.
On Monday, the Japan Times reported that the US and navies from all 10 Asean countries had kicked off the first Asean-US Maritime Exercise.
The exercise includes drills in the disputed South China Sea as Washington ramps up its moves against alleged “bullying” in the disputed waterway by Beijing. The five-day exercise started in Thailand’s Sattahip Naval Base and will end in Singapore.
During an open dialogue entitled “Balancing Relations with the Superpowers in the Context of Asean” in the capital on Monday, Mr Mahathir said that holding the US-Asean maritime exercise is meaningless and the US is merely using it to test its naval strength in the region.
“I think such exercises cost a lot of money and only provoke other people,” he said. “If you do that in the South China Sea, the Chinese will feel threatened.”
“When they feel threatened, they are going to build bigger ships, stronger naval forces and also send their warship into those areas,” he added. “An accident could happen which triggers shootings which could escalate into wars. If they [US] wants to test their naval capabilities, they should do it in their own country. Why come here?”
Mr Mahathir said China has the right to feel threatened, noting that if the Chinese held a naval exercise near New York, the US would not feel comfortable.
US Navy Rear Admiral Murray Joe Tynch, commander of the Logistics Group Western Pacific and commander of Task Force 73 in Singapore, yesterday said during a media teleconference from Manila that the Asean-US exercise was a positive step toward building a more networked region. He said this was key to maintaining stability and security.
“While the United States Navy has been conducting exercises, port visits, and engagements in Southeast Asia for decades, this [exercise] does represent a step forward,” he said. “There’s a trend of increased multilateral cooperation, and AUMX is a great example.”
“The reason I’m here with all of you this morning is that my role is to oversee theatre security cooperation for the United States Navy in the region,” he added. “What that really means, plainly, is we focus our efforts to build, maintain, and strengthen positive relationships with partners who share common values.”
Chheang Vannarith, Asian Vision Institute president, yesterday said AUMX is the first joint maritime security exercise between the US and Asean, noting that the main objective is to send a clear signal to China that the US is here to stay.
“The US-China confrontation is going to intensify in coming months and years as these two major powers have chosen the path of long-term rivalry from trade war to military and security competition,” he said.
Mr Vannarith said that Asean is between a rock and a hard place now and faces pressure from both the US and China.
He noted that being neutral is the best way for Asean to secure its own future.