BANGKOK (AFP)- Eight warships, four aircraft and more than a thousand personnel from the US and ten Southeast Asian countries will join maritime drills kicking off Monday (Sept 2), as part of a joint exercise extending into the flashpoint South China Sea.
The first Asean-US Maritime Exercise (AUMX) between the regional bloc and Washington lasts for five days, starting at the Sattahip Naval Base in Thailand and ending in Singapore.
The drills come at a time of stepped-up US engagement in the region and tensions between Beijing and South-east Asian nations over the South China Sea, parts of which are claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Co-led by the US and Royal Thai navies, the exercises will stretch into "international waters in South-east Asia, including the Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea" before concluding in Singapore, according to a statement from the US embassy in Bangkok.
"AUMX builds greater maritime security on the strength of Asean, the strength of our navy-to-navy bonds, and the strength of our shared belief in a free and open Indo-Pacific," said Rear Admiral Joey Tynch, who oversees the US Navy's security cooperation in South-east Asia.
The joint drills have come under criticism for looping in Myanmar's Navy in a rare show of inclusion despite Washington imposing sanctions on top army brass over the Rohingya crisis.
All ten members of the Association of South-east Asian Nations will take part in the exercises which include the boarding of target vessels to simulate search and seizure.
They are unfolding as a Chinese survey ship remains in waters claimed by Vietnam, prompting the Pentagon last week to accuse Beijing of efforts to "violate the rules-based international order throughout the Indo-Pacific".
China claims the majority of the South China Sea, often invoking its so-called nine-dash line as a supposed historic justification to the waters, which are a key global shipping route.
On a trip to Thailand last month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged South-east Asian nations to push back against Chinese "coercion" in the sea.