US, Asean to hold first joint maritime exercises

BANGKOK • The United States and 10 South-east Asian states will hold their first joint maritime exercises next month aimed at preventing "wrongdoing" as Washington and Beijing jostle for influence in the region.

Washington has traditionally been the dominant naval power in South-east Asia, and its re-engagement with the area comes as a deteriorating trade war with China threatens to engulf the global economy.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended a regional summit earlier this month with Asean in a bid to promote the Trump administration's so-called "Indo-Pacific" strategy.

Also a source of friction is China's expansive claims to the South China Sea, as the resource-rich waters contain some of the world's most vital commercial shipping lanes.

Despite having conflicting interests with four rival claimants in Asean, China last year held a joint maritime drill with the regional bloc.

The navies of the US and Asean will do the same on Sept 2, the US embassy in Bangkok announced last Friday, with the exercises launching at a Thai naval base in Chonburi province, east of Bangkok. The purpose of the five-day drill is to "maintain maritime security, focus on prevention and pre-empt wrongdoing in the sea", said a US embassy statement.

The drills will primarily take place off the coast of Vietnam's southernmost Ca Mau province, where the US Navy will dispatch "suspicious boats" in a mock exercise to help Asean's navies to "search, verify and legally prosecute" the boats.

Despite having conflicting interests with four rival claimants in Asean, China last year held a joint maritime drill with the regional bloc.

Tensions between China and Vietnam have been high since last month in the disputed sea when a Chinese survey ship entered waters where Hanoi has several oil and gas projects.

But a Thai defence ministry spokesman yesterday played down the timing of the US-Asean drills. "We held exercises with China, now we are having exercises with the US... it has nothing to do with the current situation," said Lieutenant General Kongcheep Tantravanich.

 
 

Last Friday, a US military ship sailed through the Taiwan Strait to conduct a "freedom of navigation" voyage, the island's defence ministry said.

The move is likely to further irk China in the wake of Washington's latest US$8 billion (S$11.1 billion) arms sales to self-ruling Taiwan, which Beijing views as part of its territory.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 25, 2019, with the headline 'US, Asean to hold first joint maritime exercises'. Print Edition | Subscribe