SINGAPORE (Kyodo) -- Amid lingering maritime disputes in the South China Sea, the navies of China and member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have begun their maritime exercises in Singapore, focusing on cooperation in times of safety-related sea incidents, officials said Friday.
The ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise, initially proposed by China and formally adopted by the two parties in February, kicked off with a two-day tabletop exercise starting Thursday at Singapore's Changi Naval Base, and will be followed with actual drills at sea in waters near China in October.
"This exercise provided very good opportunities from the navies of ASEAN and China to work together using the CUES (Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea). And together, we developed plans that we can use in response to a maritime incident," Col. Lim Yu Chuan of the Singapore navy who served as exercise co-director, told reporters.
"Through these activities, we have enhanced understanding among our navy participants and strengthened our ability to work together at sea during operations," he added.
Capt. Liang Zhijia of the Chinese navy, the other exercise co-director, said the activity is a "pragmatic measure to practice President Xi (Jinping's) principles of amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness in conducting neighborhood diplomacy, as well as to build a community of shared interests and common destiny with ASEAN."
"The exercise is beneficial to promote military exchanges and cooperation between China and ASEAN member states...and to research and explore the response mechanism, ways and means, and the operational mode of Joint Search and Rescue by China and ASEAN navies," he said.
The tabletop exercise gathered more than 40 naval and other military officers from the 11 countries. After reviewing procedures in maritime rescue and other relevant protocols such as the CUES, they developed a response plan for a supposed collision incident involving an oil tanker and a passenger ship in the high seas off Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam.
"The tabletop exercise was successfully and smoothly conducted," Lim said.
A Philippine navy officer involved in the exercise said his country is prepared to send one of its navy's logistics ships for the October field training exercise in China.
Asked how the Philippines and other ASEAN member states are working with China despite competing claims in the South China Sea, the officer said, "It's fine, because those involved in planning this insisted that this should not be a war-fighting exercise. It's basically just search and rescue, and cooperation at sea."
Philippine Defense Department spokesman Arsenio Andolong told Kyodo News that "it was agreed that there will be no exercises in contested areas."
Beijing continues to assert sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea despite its claim being invalidated by an international arbitration court in The Hague in 2016, following Manila's legal action. It has been criticized for constructing and fortifying artificial islands.
Asked if plans developed through this exercise can be applied in actual incidents that take place at the South China Sea, Lim said it is only natural to assist any distressed vessel "regardless of the location."
"This exercise allowed our navies from ASEAN and China to develop plans in responding to maritime incidents at sea. And I am confident that should this happen anywhere in the world, we would be able to work together and cooperate well to respond to maritime incidents."
Collin Koh, a Singaporean maritime security expert, views the exercise as "what we deem as 'low hanging fruits' type of cooperation, nothing politically or operationally sensitive, and the approach is humanitarian in nature."
"It is actually more symbolic than anything," Koh told Kyodo News as he acknowledges the exercise "objectives of "building confidence and starting a habit of multilateral cooperation in the South China Sea."
"At least, such practical moves are useful. It may still take some time to promulgate the Code of Conduct despite the agreement on a single draft negotiating text. So in the interim and long term, such practical measures as carried out in the joint exercise will help mitigate those maritime emergencies, and also incidents."
On Friday, ASEAN navy chiefs and a ranking Chinese navy officer visited the tabletop exercise venue for a brief observation. The former are set to attend the 12th ASEAN Navy Chiefs Meeting on Saturday in Singapore.
ASEAN also includes Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand.