SINGAPORE – Chinese and Southeast Asian naval forces staged their first computer-simulated drills so they can jointly respond to emergencies and build trust amid the long-seething disputes in the South China Sea.
The two-day exercises that ended Friday involved more than 40 sailors from China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. They worked on search and rescue scenarios following a mock ship collision.
Singapore’s navy hosted the drills at a training centre in Changi naval base, where officers co-ordinated their force deployments and helicopter landings on navy ships. They monitored developments on three giant screens, including one showing the location of a collision between an oil tanker, which supposedly caught fire, and a passenger ship that sank and scattered people in the high seas.
It’s a successful prelude to actual manoeuvrs at sea that are planned for October in China, said Col. Lim Yu Chuan of the Singapore navy.
“The exercise is beneficial to promote military exchanges and co-operation between China and ASEAN member states, to advance our mutual trust,” Capt. Liang Zhijia from the People’s Liberation Army Navy told reporters.
Organizers did not directly link the exercises to the territorial disputes, which escalated after China turned seven disputed reefs into man-made islands, including three with runways. They now resemble bases with buildings and weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, and have sparked protests, including from rival claimants.
China and ASEAN have held talks for years to try to ease tensions and prevent the disputes from degenerating into open conflicts. During the annual meeting of their foreign ministers in Singapore Thursday, an agreement was announced on an initial draft of a “code of conduct,” a set of rules to discourage aggression and reduce chances of accidental clashes and miscalculations.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called the negotiating draft “the biggest highlight” of the meeting. “We believe that without any disturbances from the outside, COC (code of conduct) consultations will accelerate,” Wang said.
China has accused the United States of meddling into an Asian dispute. The U.S. military has deployed its massive aircraft carriers, warships and fighter jets to patrol the disputed waters, including areas close to China’s artificial islands, in manoeuvrs it says aim to promote freedom of navigation and overflight in the strategic waterway.
Other Asian and Western nations have weighed in on the territorial conflicts, calling for the rule of law to be upheld and the disputes to be resolved peacefully, and not by force or intimidation.
European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini expressed hopes that negotiations would lead to a legally binding code of conduct that will uphold international laws and principles like freedom of navigation.
“We have, I would say, political interest in the international principles, norms and laws to be respected,” Mogherini said in a lecture on the sidelines of ASEAN meetings in Singapore. “Secondly, we have an economic interest, because as you know European goods travel the seas, including around Asia.”
Wang said the planned naval exercises in China and the computer-simulated drills in Singapore were a starting point in efforts to elevate Beijing’s security relations with Southeast Asia.
“The two sides will further expand our defence exchange and security affairs co-operation in a joint effort to meet security challenges and uphold regional stability,” Wang told a news conference Thursday.
Aside from China and Taiwan, ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have overlapping claims in the disputed region. In the bloodiest confrontations, China clashed with Vietnamese forces in the Paracel Islands in 1974, leaving 74 South Vietnamese dead. Another clash in 1988 in the Spratlys, the South China Sea’s most contested region, left more than 60 Vietnamese sailors dead.