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Radio Free Asia

China plans 6-nation drills with Southeast Asian countries

Analysts say Aman Youyi-2023 will be smaller than similar U.S. exercises.

By RFA Staff 2023.05.30 -- China is planning a large six-nation military exercise later this year to boost engagement and build mutual confidence with Southeast Asian partners, the Chinese military has said.

The expanded Aman Youyi-2023 (Peace and Friendship -2023) drills, however, would "remain a far cry from the more established slate of engagements by the U.S." in the region, said an analyst.

Military delegations from China, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam had an initial planning conference for Exercise Aman Youyi-2023 in Guangzhou last week, said the Southern Theater Command of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) on microblogging site Weibo.

Delegates from the six countries "reached consensus" on several topics including the theme, date, location, preset background and approaches of the exercise, said the Command.

The announcement on Weibo didn't come with a date but sources told RFA the exercise would be held this November.

This will be the first time Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia take part together in combined drills with China. The official media in Vietnam, which has territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea, have not mentioned the event.

China's Global Times quoted an analyst as saying that with more Southeast Asian members participating, "the Aman Youyi-2023 exercise will serve as a stabilizer for regional security."

Zhuo Hua, an international affairs expert at the School of International Relations and Diplomacy of Beijing Foreign Studies University, said it proved that "more countries come to understand and agree with China's views in cooperative, comprehensive and sustainable security."

U.S.-China rivalry

Another analyst, Collin Koh from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said that "China has always wanted to have military engagements in Southeast Asia that are on par with those by the U.S."

However, "it remains a relatively new player in the field of defense diplomacy," Koh told RFA.

"The scale and depth of such engagements remain a far cry from the more established slate of engagements by the U.S.," he added.

China and Laos have just completed a joint military exercise called Friendship Shield 2023 in Laos with a combined force of nearly 1,000 troops.

In March, Cambodia and China carried out exercise Golden Dragon 2023 in Cambodia's Kampong Chhnang province.

To compare, in April more than 17,600 members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the U.S. military took part in Balikatan 2023, an annual bilateral exercise between the two allies and the largest iteration of Balikatan to date.

A month earlier, a U.S.-led multinational exercise - Cobra Gold 2023 - was held in Thailand with more than 7,000 service members from seven full participating nations and more than 20 other nations attending as observers.

And next year, the world's largest international maritime exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) will be held with even more than the 25,000 personnel in the 2022 RIMPAC.

"Southeast Asian countries engage in these exercises to demonstrate their willingness to engage China in the defense and security realm, but this also reflects the regional countries' desire to exercise strategic autonomy," Collin Koh said.

"I see Aman Youyi as more geopolitically symbolic for some Southeast Asian countries, even if the objective might differ from that of Beijing," the Singapore-based military analyst said.

Strengthening bonds

The first Aman Youyi joint exercise was held in 2014 between Malaysian armed forces and the PLA but as a tabletop exercise.

With a theme of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, it was conducted "successfully" in the Paya Indah Wetlands in Selangor, Malaysia, two years later.

The bilateral drills expanded to include Thailand in 2018 but were disrupted by the COVID pandemic in the years after.

"Enhancing military cooperation with countries including those in Southeast Asia is an important aspect of China's military diplomacy," the Global Times quoted Song Zhongping, a Chinese military expert, as saying.

It is unclear how many military personnel from each country will take part in Aman Youyi-2023 and which drills will be conducted.

The recent Laos-China exercise Friendship Shield 2023 included "strikes on armed positions in mountainous and forest areas in order to boost joint operational capabilities in counterterrorism and the safeguarding of borders," according to Chinese state media.

Edited by Mike Firn.

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