China is keen to hold joint drills next year in the South China Sea to deal with unplanned encounters at sea and search-and-rescue efforts with Asean states, even as it criticised some of them for disrupting regional cooperation by "playing up tensions and involving external parties in the region".
Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan did not name the countries in his criticisms at the inaugural China-hosted informal defence meeting with Asean yesterday. But he pledged Beijing's commitment to maintaining regional stability and urged all sides to handle disputes appropriately and tackle common security challenges.
"Our biggest common benefit for the region lies in speeding up development. Our biggest common desire is in strengthening cooperation. Our biggest common need is in maintaining stability," he said at the meeting held at the Diaoyutai State Guest House in Beijing.
The media, allowed in the meeting for less than 10 minutes, heard him list steps such as establishing a defence and security framework with Asean, and the posting of Chinese security liaison officers to the Asean Secretariat in Jakarta.
The proposed drills were listed later in a post by the Chinese Defence Ministry on its microblog.
Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said at the two-day informal meeting which began on Thursday that the Republic would carry out its role as the coordinator of Asean-China Dialogue Relations to deepen trust between both sides.
"Dr Ng emphasised the need for Asean and China to keep working together to maintain peace and stability in the region. He welcomed greater Asean-China cooperation through Asean-led platforms such as the Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting (ADMM)-Plus," said the Ministry of Defence in a statement.
Dr Ng will speak today at the three-day Xiangshan Forum, a regional security dialogue billed as China's version of the annual Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore. It began yesterday.
Mindef added that Asean defence ministers also pointed to the ADMM-Plus as the key platform for boosting practical cooperation between the 10-member grouping and dialogue partners like China.
China had proposed the informal defence meeting in 2013, following a similar idea from the United States earlier that year.
The first US-Asean informal defence ministers' meeting was held in Hawaii in April last year.
Asean defence officials already meet regularly with their counterparts from dialogue partners and hold joint exercises under the ADMM-Plus.
Analysts say Beijing believes hosting the defence meeting would boost mutual trust and cooperation amid brewing tensions as China and other claimants - Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia - assert their territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Tensions have also brewed as Beijing and Washington lock horns over freedom of navigation and overflight in the maritime hub, following China's reclamation of reefs into islands large enough for military airstrips in the past year.
Analysts said practical cooperation could help soothe tensions.
Peking University international relations expert Zha Daojiong, describing defence as arguably the last important area yet to be institutionalised in China-Asean cooperation, said all 11 parties should seize the momentum from the Beijing event and "move towards formalising routine defence consultations at the ministerial level".
Mr Prashanth Parameswaran, a regular columnist on The Diplomat website, said that the US-Asean defence meeting is a factor not to be overlooked in the broader context of American and Chinese engagement of South-east Asia and Asean's decision to attend the Beijing meeting.
"It represents a continuation of Asean's policy of engaging major powers to the greatest extent possible and in accordance with the comfort of individual states," he told The Straits Times.