Thai troops will join their Malaysian and Chinese counterparts this weekend for a 10-day naval training exercise in the Strait of Malacca off Malaysia, marking the first time the three nations will drill together at the Indian Ocean gateway.
China and Malaysia began the “Peace and Friendship” drill as a table top exercise in 2014 and expanded to on-sea training involving troops from both nations the next year.
Thai officials said they were invited to join as a result of military talks with Malaysia in September. Bangkok will send 53 troops and three senior Thai Royal Navy staff members to participate in the drills, which will kick off on Saturday.
“This trilateral military training is the first of its kind between China and ASEAN nations,” Lai Yew Ming, a South China Sea analyst at Universiti Malaysia Sabah, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
“We shouldn’t see China’s trilateral military training from a new perspective, but instead it should be expected.”
China announced it would be sending 692 troops along with three ships, two helicopters, three airplanes and four vehicles.
“The exercise aims to further demonstrate the common will of the armed forces of the three countries in maintaining 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,” the Chinese Ministry of National Defense said in statement earlier this week.
“It does not target any country.”
The Strait of Malacca is not in the South China Sea. It is a chokepoint between the southern Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean.
Malaysia, the host country, meanwhile, has not announced the number of troops or ships that will be involved in the exercise planned for ports Dickson and Klang, near Kuala Lumpur.
Only China would issue a statement about the exercise, a Malaysian military press officer told BenarNews.
The trilateral exercise helps China build relations in the region, said Prashanth Parameswaran, a fellow with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
“China has been looking to cast its growing security links with Southeast Asian states as a demonstration of its commitment to regional stability, including in the South China Sea, even as it continues activities perceived to undermine that very stability,” he told BenarNews.
“Thailand’s inclusion is not surprising – China has been strengthening security ties with Thailand over the past few years including with new exercises, and that is seen as an even bigger win considering that Thailand is a U.S. treaty ally,” he said.
Neighboring country Indonesia, whose Sumatra island borders the Strait of Malacca, is aware of the training exercise.
“This is something countries regularly do in their waters,” foreign ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir told BenarNews. “We will continue to monitor.”
In May, Indonesia and India – China’s largest rival in Asia – announced plans to establish a strategic naval port at the mouth of the Malacca Strait. Arrmanatha said he did not have updated information on the port.
Anil Wadhwa, an Indian diplomat who served as ambassador to Thailand, said the exercise was not a threat to his nation, but he signaled that Malaysia and Thailand were willing to work with China to promote regional security.
“It is also significant that the exercise is being held off the Straits of Malacca, which is an important choke point on sea lanes from the Indian Ocean leading to the Pacific Ocean,” he told BenarNews.
China to host ASEAN navies
The exercise begins two days before China hosts Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members in their first joint naval exercises amid ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Running from Oct. 22 to 29, the training follows a computer-simulated exercise that took place in Singapore in August.
Both China and the regional bloc agreed that the upcoming exercises would take place in Zhanjiang, which sits on the South China Sea.
The sea region is the focus of tensions between rival powers the United States and China, and it is where territorial disputes between four ASEAN members and Beijing have simmered for years. China has transformed seven disputed reefs in the mineral-rich sea into man-made islands that house surface-to-air missiles and runways.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.