China wants military drills with ASEAN in disputed sea, excluding US

By AFP   August 2, 2018 | 04:25 pm GMT+7
China wants military drills with ASEAN in disputed sea, excluding US
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (6th, L) and ASEAN foreign ministers pose for a group photo during the opening ceremony of the 51st ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Singapore, August 2, 2018. Photo by Reuters/Edgar Su

China wants military exercises and energy exploration with ASEAN members in disputed waters, says a draft document.

But it insists on outside countries being excluded in what analysts said was a bid to diminish U.S. influence.

Beijing's suggestions are part of efforts to expand its influence in the South China Sea, which it claims almost entirely, and push back at Washington which has backed countries with overlapping claims to the waters. Vietnam calls the waterway the East Sea.

A code of conduct between Beijing and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to govern behavior in the strategic sea has been years in the making.

The draft document, seen by AFP, outlines different countries' bargaining positions as they work towards an agreement, and analysts said it represented some initial progress.

In the text, Vietnam offers the strongest opposition to Beijing's activities - calling for countries to stop building artificial islands and establishing military installations.

But there was little sign of serious resistance from other countries, signalling how opposition to China's aggressive expansion in the resource-rich waters has ebbed in recent years in Southeast Asia.

Tensions have escalated in recent years due to Beijing building artificial islands that can host military bases.

Meanwhile the U.S. - traditionally the dominant military power in the area - has more frequently carried out patrols aimed at ensuring freedom of navigation.

Long-running tensions

In the draft text, Beijing suggests that China and the 10 ASEAN states should carry out joint military exercises regularly.

However, the drills should not involve countries outside the region "unless the parties concerned are notified beforehand and express no objection."

The suggestion to exclude outside countries "is obviously targeted at the U.S. which has been dominating the waters of the Western Pacific and the South China Sea in particular", Hoang Thi Ha, from the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, told AFP.

By proposing joint military exercises, China is trying to send a "subtle message to the world that ASEAN and China could work together and things are progressing well, hence there is no need for external involvement in the South China Sea issue," said Ha.

Beijing also suggested that China and ASEAN could carry out joint oil and gas exploration in the waters but again proposed that firms from countries outside the region be excluded from such activities, the document showed.

At a meeting of foreign ministers in Singapore on Thursday, Beijing and ASEAN announced they had agreed on the negotiating text for the code.

Opposition against China has weakened in parts of Southeast Asia, with analysts saying that countries are keen to attract Chinese investment and are worried about U.S. commitment to the region under President Donald Trump.

The Philippines, under previous president Benigno Aquino, had been a leading voice against China's expansion in the sea and used ASEAN events to pressure Beijing - but current Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has reversed that policy.

 
 
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