The US-ASEAN Maritime Exercise: Why Myanmar Matters

By Joe Kumbun 9 September 2019

The US and ASEAN navies conducted their first joint maritime exercises from Sept. 2 to 6 in Southeast Asia, in international waters including in the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea. The Myanmar navy, led by Lieutenant Colonel Khun Aung Kyaw, took part.

The US decision to include Myanmar has been criticized by some, particularly from rights groups who cite the Rohingya crisis, the ongoing ethnic conflicts in the country and other human rights violations by the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw.

But this condemnation is plausible only if the US works bilaterally with just the Tatmadaw beyond these maritime exercises—for instance, if they sell weapons to or offer training for Tatmadaw cadets or the like.

Hopefully, the US never works with the Tatmadaw in such evil ways.

There are two reasons Myanmar was invited to participate in the recent exercises. First, as an ASEAN nation, it cannot and should not be excluded from any activities conducted by the ASEAN family, and US-ASEAN cooperation is vital for regional security and terrorism prevention.

The potential threat of terrorism across the region became a major security concern after terrorists conducted coordinated attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka in April 2019. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) operate in countries throughout the region, and a maritime partnership is crucial to addressing such prevalent security challenges in the region.

Furthermore, the US-ASEAN cooperation is vital for protecting the marine environment and its resources from the harmful effects of illicit fishing practices. Preventing, deterring and eliminating illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing cannot be tackled by ASEAN alone, and technical and financial support from the US is crucial to addressing the challenge. The recent maritime drill promotes a shared commitment to maritime partnerships, security and stability in Southeast Asia.

Second, Myanmar should actively participate with the US and other ASEAN members that respect and value the principles of a rules-based order. Southeast Asia is central to the Indo-Pacific region, where the Great Powers are vying for influence by any means. China in particular—a regional superpower—is seeking influence through its economic and military clout, which challenges the sovereignty of every country.

China’s influence poses an unprecedented and inevitable challenge for Southeast Asia. It uses economic inducements and penalties to make nations comply with its agenda. It forced Sri Lanka, for example, to hand over a strategic port for 99 years because of Sri Lanka’s national debt. This is a major challenge to the sovereignty of countries in Southeast Asia and beyond.

Building a robust partnership between the US and ASEAN countries is of an unprecedented importance for maintaining the stability and maritime security of the region. Myanmar’s participation should be seen as a good step toward partnering with the US and other ASEAN members for regional stability, security and for facing future geopolitics. By pursuing these aims, Myanmar will benefit from free and open regional and international systems and a US-led, rules-based order.

Joe Kumbun is the pseudonym of an analyst based in the Kachin State.

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