After repeatedly attempting to hold a joint maritime exercise with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), China has finally gotten buy-in from Southeast Asia.
On October 23, China’s defense minister and state councilor, Chang Wanquan, and his Singaporean counterpart, Ng Eng Hen, met on the sidelines of the 11th ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM) and 4th ADMM-Plus in the Philippines. The two discussed “further practical initiatives to advance ASEAN-China relations,” including “planning for conduct of an inaugural ASEAN-China maritime exercise, ” according to a statement from Singapore’s defense ministry, without disclosing more details on the maritime exercise.
According to Bloomberg, Ng said on October 24 on the sidelines of ADMM, “We’ll work out the details…We will find a suitable area that ASEAN and China navies can exercise together.”
“From Singapore’s point of view, the more exercises we have with countries, the better for confidence-building,” Ng added.
Singapore, in its current role as the country coordinator for ASEAN–China dialogue relations, will also take on the 2018 chairmanship of ASEAN, currently held by the Philippines. Both roles will provide Singapore more leverage in balancing power between China and the ASEAN countries, against the background of an increasingly tricky South China Sea issue.
For China, Singapore is also a more trustworthy and reliable partner compared to some other states in ASEAN. Notably, the city-state has no claims at stake in the South China Sea. China has already lauded Singapore several times for its “positive” and “constructive” role as ASEAN coordinator.
During the latest meeting, Chang once again “expressed appreciation for Singapore’s efforts at strengthening ASEAN-China ties,” said the statement.
Regarding the relations between Singapore and China specifically, the statement said that “warm and friendly” bilateral defense relations have steadily progressed since 2014. The People’s Liberation Army and the Singapore Armed Forces have conducted a series of regular interactions, including “the army exercise, Exercise Cooperation, the new bilateral naval exercise, Exercise Maritime Cooperation, introduced in 2015.”
Interestingly, China’s defense ministry hasn’t publicly released any information about the potential joint maritime exercise on its website so far, even though it was China that proposed the idea.
As early as 2015, China has proposed joint maritime drills with ASEAN nations in the South China Sea. China’s defense ministry said the drills would be one way of achieving the aim of “jointly solving disputes and controlling risks,” according to the BBC.
In 2016, China once again suggested joint drills with the ASEAN nations, in an attempt to “reduce risk of actual conflict” and to “practice Code of Unexpected Encounters in the Sea (CUES).”
On October 24, Chang Wanquan said in a public speech at the 4th ADMM-Plus meeting that China will “unswervingly follow the road of peaceful development and be committed to building a community of shared future for mankind.”