Participants hail progress in cooperation at end of first Asean-China maritime exercise

Exercise co-directors Colonel Lim Yu Chuan from the Republic of Singapore Navy and Senior Captain Zhu Jianda, commander of the People's Liberation Army Combat Support Flotilla, Southern Theatre Command, speaking to the media at the closing ceremony of the Asean-China Maritime Field Training Exercise. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

ZHANJIANG (Guangdong) - The first Asean-China Maritime Field Training Exercise ended on Saturday (Oct 27), as participants hailed the strides made in cooperation between Asean and Chinese navies.

It focused on maritime safety, with a joint search-and-rescue mission - one of the highlights of the six-day exercise - carried out in the waters off Zhanjiang, southern Guangdong province.

In a speech at the closing ceremony at Ma Xie Naval Base, Vice-Admiral Wang Hai, Commander of Naval Force, Southern Theatre Command, said the exercise showed a "new level of strategic cooperation between China and Asean".

"Our cooperation in defence and security has achieved new progress and together, we compose a new chapter for the pragmatic naval exchange among countries surrounding the South China Sea," he said.

Exercise co-director, Colonel Lim Yu Chuan from the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN), who approved the plans for the exercise together with his Chinese counterpart, said that its successful completion was "an important achievement".

Col Lim, who is the RSN's commander of First Flotilla and commanding officer of 185 Squadron, told reporters on Saturday: "The participants told us they were happy with the outcomes, and this has enabled us to have a greater confidence and trust for our navies to work alongside one another, especially when it comes to responding to maritime incidents at sea in the future."

The other exercise co-director was Senior Captain Zhu Jianda, commander of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Combat Support Flotilla, Southern Theatre Command.

The field training exercise was the first exercise that Asean has held with one other country. It was co-organised by the RSN, represented by the Formidable-class frigate RSS Stalwart, and the PLA Navy.

It comes as overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea by China and several Asean members - Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei - continue to be a source of tension and concern in the region.

Five serials, or components, were carried out by eight ships during the two-day sea phase. These naval serials were executed based on plans developed during a table-top exercise held in Singapore in August.

Lieutenant (Junior Grade) John Emmanuel Sison, 31, a public affairs officer from the Philippines' Naval Task Group 88, said: "The Philippines will take home new lessons, and take home the hospitality of the Chinese people.

"We learnt how to seamlessly communicate with one another, and were also able to learn how to implement the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, together with other navies."

Assistant operations officer, Lieutenant Baharudin Haji Salleh, 33, from the Royal Brunei Navy, said the exercise was a good chance to share knowledge and best practices.

"When we meet Chinese ships next time in the seas, we are more confident that we can interact with them," he said.

Maritime specialist Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, believes there is still much merit to the exercise despite having some doubts about its usefulness beyond its "obvious political symbolism".

"It's at least an effort made by both sides to come together, especially when organising a multilateral exercise of such a scale. Involving participating navies with varying capabilities, capacities, readiness levels is no easy feat," he said.

The exercise is also a good way for China to demonstrate that Asean and itself are able to manage South China Sea disputes peacefully without the interference of external parties, although whether this exercise will become a regular one remains to be seen, he added.

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