In an apparent sign of easing tensions over maritime disputes between China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the two held a joint maritime rescue drill in the South China Sea, Chinese state-run media said.
The exercise, which took place Tuesday in the waters off the southern coast of China’s Guangdong Province, was “the largest of its kind for China and ASEAN members,” the official Xinhua News Agency said. It involved about 1,000 participants aboard 20 ships and three helicopters from China, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos — as well as the Philippines and Brunei, rival claimants in the South China Sea.
China claims most of the strategic waterway, through which at least $3 trillion in trade passes each year, where it controls a number of man-made islets. Besides the Philippines and Brunei, overlapping claims to the waters have also been made by Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan.
Despite a 2015 pledge by Chinese President Xi Jinping not to further “militarize” the islands, China has continued to add infrastructure and weapons as it seeks to reinforce effective control of much of the waterway.
While these moves have stoked consternation in the region and with the United States, Beijing has often attempted to shift the focus from its man-made islets to the maritime services it claims to provide to its neighbors.
Tuesday’s drill simulated a collision between a Chinese passenger ship and a Cambodian bulk cargo ship, with passengers falling into the sea and the cargo ship catching fire, Xinhua said.
“The maritime rescue cooperation between China and ASEAN countries could help improve rescue capability in the South China Sea,” Xinhua quoted He Xiangqi, an official with the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s department of boundary and ocean affairs, as saying.
The exercise comes days after China’s Defense Ministry said it was working to deepen military ties with Asia-Pacific countries through drills and dialogue. Defense Minister Chang Wanquan said last week that Beijing would hammer out the details for its first joint naval exercise with ASEAN by the year’s end.