Philippines to send warship for first Asean-US maritime exercise

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MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines will send one of its warships to join the first-ever maritime exercise between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and the United States in the Gulf of Thailand early September, as Washington and Beijing jostle for influence in the region.

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

The US embassy in Bangkok said the drills will kick off at a Thai naval base in Chonburi province east of Bangkok on September 2.

The purpose of the five-day maritime exercise is to “maintain maritime security, focus on prevention and pre-empt wrongdoing in the sea,” the embassy said.

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.

Flag Officer in Command Vice Adm. Robert Empedrad said the Philippine Navy will send a Del Pilar-class vessel, a former US Coast Guard cutter, to the naval drills.

He said the exercises are expected “to focus on interoperability while addressing common maritime security concerns and humanitarian assistance and disaster response.”

Bangkok Post reported that the maritime drills, which was agreed upon by Asean and US at a defense ministers’ meeting in Singapore last year, would involve at least eight ships along with aircraft.

This is the first time the 10-country Asean will be holding a joint exercise as a regional bloc with the US. Despite having conflicting interests with four Southeast Asian rival claimants over the South China Sea, China last year held a maritime drill with Asean.

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

The ship left for a brief period this month, and then came back – prompting calls from Hanoi to vacate the area.

In June, a Chinese vessel rammed an anchored Philippine fishing boat near the resource-rich Recto (Reed) Bank and willfully abandoned 22 fishermen struggling for their lives in the water.

But a Thai defense ministry spokesman on Saturday downplayed the timing of the Asean-US drills.

“We held exercises with China, now we are having exercises with the US… it has nothing to do with the current situation,” said Lt. Gen. Kongcheep Tantravanich.

Singapore-based maritime security expert Collin Koh said the joint exercises are “symbolic more than anything else,” as some Asean member states conduct regular naval exercises with the US, including multilateral ones.

“The drills are meant to not only assert Asean centrality but also as a not so subtle snub to Beijing’s proposal in the SDNT (single draft, negotiating text) for all parties to seek consent from everyone in order to conduct joint exercises with external partners,” he told INQUIRER.net.

Asean and China are currently negotiating a maritime code of conduct over the South China Sea.

The Asean move, Koh said, is likely “more about everyone coming to a consensus that no major power should attempt to dominate the regional architecture and call the shots.”

“By exercising with both China and the US, and for that matter – possibly other external powers in the future – Asean simply wants to show that it’s not taking sides, and insists on an inclusive not exclusive order,” he said. With Agence France-Presse

Philippines to send warship for first Asean-US maritime exercise

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