Southeast Asia Accepts Joint South China Sea Exercises with Beijing

French navy frigate Vendemiaire prepares to dock while a Philippine flag flutters at the international port in Manila on March 12, 2018. FNS Vendemiaire, a Floreal class light surveillance frigate, commissioned in 1993, is here for a five-day goodwill visit. / AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has accepted an invitation to conduct a “joint maritime exercises” with the communist government of China, likely in the South China Sea waters between China and their nations, Singapore confirmed on Friday.

Singapore currently chairs ASEAN, which is conducting its regular global meeting. Chinese and American officials are both in attendance.

The announcement of joint training exercises between China and the states following an announcement in Chinese state media that ASEAN has agreed to draft a universal code of conduct for behavior in the South China Sea, which Beijing has largely colonized and militarized against international law. China claims most of the South China Sea, including parts of the sovereign territory of Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan, which China regards as a rogue province.

In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague ruled that China’s claims in the South China Sea were illegal. Chinese officials vowed to disregard the ruling and have continued illegal construction in the region.

Singapore’s Channel News Asia reported on Friday that the nation’s defense ministry confirmed the planning of a “maritime field training exercise” between the ASEAN nations and China. The exercise will reportedly bring together “more than 40 naval officers from ASEAN countries and China” who will plan the specifics of the exercise before its execution. Among the list of activities to practice are search and rescue exercises and how to peacefully resolve encounters with foreign ships at sea.
“We all have common interest and should work together,” Captain Liang Zhijia, a co-director of the exercises for Singapore, told Channel News Asia. “Such practical cooperation will help build trust so that we can work together towards safe seas for all.”

That the ASEAN countries agreed to this work with China is a positive step for Beijing, which has encountered significant pushback in the region following years of building artificial islands on international territory. Agence-France Presse (AFP) reported Friday that the next step for Xi Jinping’s government will be convincing ASEAN to engage in military exercises with China, but without an American presence. The ASEAN countries are working on a draft document for a code of conduct in the South China Sea to prevent tensions between China and its neighbors, one in which AFP reports that Vietnam is currently insisting the most vocally that China rein in its illegal behavior. China claims the Spratly and Paracel Islands, parts of which belong to Vietnam and the Philippines, and has conducted some of its most elaborate military development in this region.

The United States regularly carries out Freedom of Navigation Exercises (FONOPs) in the South China Sea to assert the international nature of those waters. The exercises consist in U.S. warships passing through the region without incident, but without alerting Chinese authorities, disregarding their claims.

AFP claims China is demanding that ASEAN countries not participate in joint military exercises with the United States. The Philippines has traditionally been America’s closest ally in the region and a substantial military partner. The Philippines also won the case at the Hague that declared China’s activities illegal.

China’s state-run news agency Xinhua praised the draft code of conduct on Thursday, noting that Foreign Minister Wang Yi also emphasized at the announcement of this code of conduct that it was important to China to “exclude external interference.”

“Regardless, the adoption of a single text is a significant initial step taken by China and ASEAN countries toward resolving the long-seething South China Sea disputes that have dragged down relations in recent years,” the Global Times, a Chinese state newspaper, declared. “A single text on COC negotiations means that the 10-nation bloc has bridged their internal differences on the issue and technically pushed forward the COC consultation.”

The Times also went out of its way to accuse “countries outside the region,” without naming the United States, of “roiling the waters over the South China Sea issue for strategic purposes.”

American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended the ASEAN meeting and briefly addressed the South China Sea dispute. Pompeo told those gathered for the ministerial on Friday that the United States sees itself as a “Pacific nation” with a stake in the peace and stability of the ocean.

“On security, we appreciate ASEAN’s ongoing efforts to promote peace and stability in the region, support the rule of law in the South China Sea, and to strictly enforce sanctions on North Korea,” Pompeo said. “We are also working with ASEAN member-states to counter the threat of terrorism and violent extremism in the region.”

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