Eight ships kicked off the first Asean-China Maritime Field Training Exercise in Zhanjiang in China's southern Guangdong province yesterday.
In an opening ceremony at Ma Xie Naval Base attended by all 11 countries, Singapore's Chief of Navy, Rear-Admiral Lew Chuen Hong, emphasised the importance of the sea to the region, and how prosperity could be possible only if it remains stable and secure.
"To allow the stable and collective use of a shared space, a set of common rules and understanding is very important," he said, citing as examples the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, adopted in 1982, as well as a naval code which Asean and regional powers agreed on last year.
RADM Lew and his counterpart, Vice-Admiral Yuan Yubai, commander of the Chinese Navy's Southern Theatre Command, jointly opened the exercise involving more than 1,000 personnel yesterday.
Singapore and China are co-organising the six-day drill, which is expected to involve helicopter cross-deck landings and a joint search-and-rescue operation.
Singapore's Formidable-class frigate RSS Stalwart, which arrived at the naval baseon Sunday, is taking part in the exercise, while China has sent a destroyer, Guangzhou; a frigate, Huangshan; and a supply ship, Junshanhu.
The other ships participating are a patrol vessel from Brunei, a logistics support vessel from the Philippines, and a frigate each from Thailand and Vietnam. Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar sent observers.
The field training exercise comes after a two-day table-top exercise at the RSS Singapura-Changi Naval Base earlier this year.
During the August exercise, naval officers from the 11 countries discussed plans on tackling several scenarios, such as search-and-rescue operations and medical evacuation.
Vice-Adm Yuan in his speech yesterday described the inaugural Asean-China Maritime Field Training Exercise as a significant move towards regional security, collaboration and confidence-building.
He said: "I am confident that the exercise will yield its expected outcomes, become a predominant platform for deepening mutual understanding and exchange, and set a new milestone for a community of a shared future between China and Asean."
In his speech, RADM Lew pointed out that since ancient times, the ocean carried trade across the Asia-Pacific and ships plied the maritime silk route between ports in Guangzhou through to South-east Asia, the Middle East, Africa and beyond.
"Asia's phenomenal growth, especially in the last 50 years, has uplifted all our nations and our peoples. That growth is literally carried on the sea," he said.
On Sunday, RADM Lew called on Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe in Guangzhou. The meeting "underscores the warm defence relations (Singapore) shares with China", said a Republic of Singapore Navy post on Facebook.
It said that, as Asean-China country coordinator from 2015 to August this year, "Singapore helped to bring regional navies together and deepen understanding by growing practical cooperation".
Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen also told reporters last Saturday that the exercise was a "very positive engagement", and that China was "very happy" with it.
He said: "I think it's always better that you exercise and have troops meeting each other, having the same mission, looking at each other eye-to-eye and planning together, rather than across the table at cross purposes and contending on issues on the opposite side."
Dr Ng will be visiting the exercise today, before going to Beijing to attend the 8th Beijing Xiangshan Forum, which brings together high-level defence, military and foreign affairs officials from around the world to discuss security issues.