JAKARTA INTERNATIONAL DEFENCE DIALOGUE

Call for Asean-China joint exercises

Naval drills can build trust and rein in tensions: Indonesian navy chief

JAKARTA - As territorial disputes in the region continue to simmer, Indonesia's navy chief proposed joint naval exercises between Asean countries and China to build trust and keep tensions in check.

"We are concerned by the spillover effect of the situation in the South China Sea," Admiral Marsetio told a regional security conference yesterday.

"Hence we would like to invite China's navy to a joint exercise with Asean," he added at a panel discussion at the Jakarta International Defence Dialogue.

Admiral Marsetio's remarks are in keeping with Indonesia's attempts, as South-east Asia's largest nation, to play a greater role in resolving regional disputes in recent years.

The dialogue, organised by the Indonesian Defence University for the third year running, is one such platform. A key principle, officials say, is to balance Indonesia's - and hopefully influence the region's - relationships with major powers the United States and China, all without taking sides.

Many Asean countries already have active military exchanges with the US, and US deputy defence secretary Ashton Carter attended the first day of the two-day dialogue on Wednesday, as did the Chinese military's deputy chief of general staff, Lieutenant-General Qi Jianguo.

Admiral Marsetio acknowledged that each country's navy has a different level of readiness, but such joint exercises could help bridge the discrepancy in tactical skills.

Asean is currently trying to hammer out a Code of Conduct to keep tensions in check in the South China Sea, where territorial claims of four member states collide with that of China.

Professor Wu Xinbo, director of the Centre for American Studies at Fudan University in China, said the countries involved need to cooperate better, as conflicts will take time to resolve.

"If we want a peaceful Pacific, we should think less about the difference between our navies and more on how we can cooperate," he told over 300 defence officials and observers from 38 countries.

Rear-Admiral Anne Cullerre, commander of French forces in the Pacific, said regional navies should interact more as countries increase military spending.

"Whatever the balance of power, what concerns us most are freedom of navigation, security and stability," she said.

Admiral Marsetio noted that close maritime collaboration was not new.

Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have been working together to patrol the Strait of Malacca against piracy and other security threats since 2004, joined by Thailand a few years later.

The European Union also has jointly deployed warships to fight piracy in the Gulf of Aden and Somali waters.

Indonesia, he added, could play a key role given its strategic location between the Pacific and Indian oceans.

Indonesia is organising an international maritime security symposium this December, Admiral Marsetio told reporters later.

One focus of these talks and exercises will be how navies can better respond to natural disasters in the region.

Mr Pio Lorenzo Batino, undersecretary for legal affairs and strategic concerns at the Philippine Defence Department, said the region continues to harbour extremist groups, which pursue their demands through violent means.

"Defence diplomacy is now integral in building trust and confidence between nations," he said.

zakirh@sph.com.sg