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International relations

China lobbies ASEAN for joint military drills without US

Beijing looks to weaken American position in South China Sea

The Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning participates in a military drill in the western Pacific Ocean. Beijing seeks joint drills with ASEAN to increase its influence in the South China Sea.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- China has called for conducting joint military exercises with Southeast Asia's regional bloc in the South China Sea without the U.S., seeking to diminish American military influence in the Asia-Pacific region while expanding its own.

The proposal was included in a "negotiating text" for a code of conduct in the South China Sea announced at a meeting Thursday of foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China.

The document, which lists the views of each country, is meant to serve only as a starting point for later talks. Diplomatic sources familiar with the discussions say Beijing's portion included a call for regular joint drills with ASEAN's 10 members -- Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam -- in the South China Sea.

Beijing stipulated that any other nations wishing to participate would need the unanimous consent of all countries involved, in effect giving it veto power over U.S. participation. But some ASEAN members are leery of such restrictions. China will likely dangle offers of economic assistance to secure support for the proposal.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called the document a major step toward an agreement. But this is just a preliminary text, normally not seen worthy of mention. China's emphasis on it seems meant to underscore the progress made and warn the U.S. against interfering.

The talks come against the backdrop of Beijing's increasing militarization and territorial claims in the South China Sea. China has created 13 sq. kilometers of land through reclamation in the Spratly Islands, according to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. These artificial islands feature radar equipment, runways and other facilities, and U.S. outlet CNBC has reported that Beijing is testing radar-jamming electronic warfare assets there.

The U.S. cited this buildup when, in May, it withdrew China's invitation to this year's international Rim of the Pacific military exercises. Beijing's call for drills without the U.S. lets it get back at Washington while also making clear it fully intends to expand its reach in the South China Sea.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for a halt to Chinese militarization of the area, which is involved in numerous territorial disputes between China and many ASEAN members, in a meeting Friday with Wang.

American engagement in the Indo-Pacific region will continue, Pompeo said in a meeting with ASEAN ministers. He detailed plans announced Monday for $113 million in Indo-Pacific infrastructure investment, a response to China's efforts to gain influence through economic aid.

On the military side, a U.S. Defense Department source said that American vessels will continue "freedom of navigation" operations in the South China Sea and that new measures to counter Beijing are being considered as well.

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