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Southeast Asian militaries are talking and sharing more as they seek to prevent accidents in the South China Sea, despite inertia from governments over territorial disputes with China.

Even as China’s navy asserts its country’s claims in the contested sea, warning off other ships and planes around reclaimed reefs, military chiefs from China, the U.S. and Southeast Asia are deploying mechanisms to avoid the sort of mishap that could spark a broader conflict.

Defense officials from the U.S., China, Japan, Russia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations gather in Singapore from Friday for an annual conference, with preventing conflict escalation on the agenda.

More joint exercises and rescue missions could foster greater collaboration between Asean militaries, and with China. As ships and submarines fill up the shallow coastal waters, navies are discussing whether — and how — to work together to manage the traffic, even as political leaders hesitate to take a united stance against China.

“Efforts to improve habits of cooperation and communication among Asean militaries is going to help complicate China’s assertiveness,” said Rory Medcalf, a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney. “Every step in improved military dialog, improved military habits of cooperation will help to cushion the region from incidents if they occur.”

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter will lead the U.S. delegation to the Shangri-La Dialogue, where he will deliver a speech alongside Adm. Sun Jianguo, a deputy chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army. The U.S. has expressed concern over China’s reclamation in the South China Sea.

Avoiding accidents

China claims more than 80 percent of the South China Sea and lowering tensions in the area is key given about half the world’s merchant ships pass through the waters every year. Militaries operating in the area are eager to avoid a repeat of dangerous encounters that have occurred in the past.

In December 2013 the USS Cowpens and a Chinese military vessel had a confrontation in the South China Sea that required maneuvering to avoid a collision. Last August, a Chinese fighter buzzed within 20 feet of a U.S. surveillance plane in international waters near China’s Hainan island. Only last week a U.S. surveillance plane was warned over radio eight times by the Chinese Navy to leave the Spratly Island area.

Even so, Asean leaders have refrained from openly criticizing China in their statements urging restraint in the waters, and progress on a code of conduct has been slow.

Agreed codes

“The working relationship within Asean is not designed to deal with a threat from China,” said Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. “Military cooperation begins with the first step. Acting together builds trust and this evolves into agreement on common procedures and tactics.”

Navy chiefs agreed in April last year on rules for unplanned encounters at sea, to reduce interference and uncertainty during contact between naval vessels or aircraft. The codes were used this month, when a U.S. combat ship met a Chinese vessel while patrolling the South China Sea.

“They talked to each other and reacted professionally,” U.S. Vice Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michelle Howard told reporters in Singapore. “When I’ve talked to other nations, they say they have used CUES between them as well,” she said, referring to the agreement to use codes for unplanned encounters at sea.

Singapore, which is not a claimant, is proposing a regional framework to govern submarine operations in the area, according to its navy chief Rear Admiral Lai Chung Han, who said this month the number of surface ships and submarines operating in the South China Sea means the waters are “an accident waiting to happen.”

Joint exercises

The 10 Asean nations conducted a joint maritime security training exercise with Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and the U.S. in 2013, the first under its ADMM-Plus mechanism, which includes South Korea and Russia. Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Singapore and the Philippines took part in the U.S-led Rim of the Pacific drills last year, joining China and Japan.

Singapore and China completed the first in a series of new bilateral naval exercises this month, a four-day affair involving gunnery firings and maneuvering drills.

China threat

Shows of strength between militaries in the South China Sea aren’t new. In 1984, during the Cold War, the Soviet aircraft carrier Minsk fired flares at the U.S. frigate Harold E. Holt, three of which hit the ship. No retaliatory action was taken by the Holt.

But with territorial tensions escalating in the area, military ties may prevent a single encounter from setting off a broader conflict. China on Tuesday set out its ambitions for a navy focused on “open seas protection” as well as “offshore waters defense.”

It has been easier for Asean to work together militarily than politically, though most cooperation has been led by the U.S. or the United Nations, according to Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“The U.S. does most of its really serious military operations with close allies and partners, and while these may not be overtly designed with a China threat in mind, they could serve as ways to signal warnings to China or to prepare for bilateral cooperation,” he said.

MH370

One major joint effort was the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 last year, which involved more than a dozen countries. Yet, the hunt highlighted gaps in information sharing between Asean nations.

With “the problems with sharing data around the time of the disappearance of flight MH370 last year, I very much doubt that most regional countries are comfortable cooperating in sensitive areas like anti-submarine warfare,” said Lowy’s Medcalf. “In the end, military and diplomatic security cooperation are going to advance hand in hand or not at all.”

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