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International relations

ASEAN to start naval exercise with US in 2019

Defense ministers seek balance as Southeast Asia prepares for drill with China

U.S. defense secretary James Mattis stressed his country's commitment to Southeast Asia during a meeting with ASEAN defense ministers in Singapore on Oct. 19. (Photo courtesy of Ministry of Defense, Singapore)

SINGAPORE -- The Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Friday announced it would start a joint naval drill with the U.S. in 2019. The announcement came as the group prepares for its inaugural joint exercise with China next week.

As trade tensions between the U.S. and China seep out into the areas of defense and security, ASEAN defense ministers are choosing to maintain a balance between the two superpowers.

The joint exercise with the U.S. will start in 2019, ASEAN said in a declaration signed on Friday. The details have yet to be ironed out. Singapore defense minister Ng Eng Hen, who is chairman of the ASEAN ministerial meeting, did not say whether the exercise would be held in the disputed parts of the South China Sea, when asked at a news conference on Friday.

However, ASEAN carried out a computer-based maritime drill with China in August in Singapore. The first live-force drill, focusing on search and rescue operations, will be held next week in Zhanjiang, in China's Guangdong province.

"China proposed the maritime exercise with ASEAN and we decided to do [it]. The U.S. also proposed, and we could do it," Ng told reporters. "We are open to other exercises too. All exercises that ASEAN conducts with our ... partners, is a plus."

His comments reflect ASEAN's struggle to keep a comfortable proximity with both China and the U.S., amid the escalating tensions between the two nations. Both superpowers are crucial economic and security partners for Southeast Asian countries.

"ASEAN has always tried to walk the tightrope between the two great powers, US and China," said William Choong, Asia Pacific security analyst from London-based research institution the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Already worsened bilateral ties between China and U.S., due to the tit-for-tat import tariffs they have slapped on each other's products, have become rockier following a near-collision between U.S. and Chinese warships in the South China Sea in September.

"We want a constructive relationship between the U.S. and China. We don't want tensions," U.S. defense secretary James Mattis stressed to ASEAN ministers at an informal meeting over lunch on Friday. However, the 90-minute discussion between Mattis and his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe on Thursday did not appear to bear any fruit.

Randall Schriver, the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, who attended the meeting, said that the South China Sea issue was "an area where we will continue to have differences and talk [them] through."

Despite China's aggressive territorial moves in the South China Sea, relations between ASEAN and China have improved in recent years. Southeast Asian governments sought economic opportunities with China, most notably from its massive infrastructure investment program under the Belt and Road Initiative.

China and ASEAN in August agreed on a single draft negotiating text for the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, moving a step closer towards completion of a code and helping to stabilize the area. China's willingness to build and maintain close relations with its neighbors is expected to endure as its relations with the U.S. remain cold.

There is increasing concern among ASEAN countries about relying too much on China's economic initiatives for future growth. However, on the economic front, "America has not really brought anything to ASEAN's table," Choong said. He said ASEAN members were keen for a stronger American engagement in the region. 

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