The United States and 10 Southeast Asian nations were set to kick off joint maritime naval exercises Monday, including drills in the disputed South China Sea, as Washington ramped up its moves against alleged “bullying” in the disputed waterway by Beijing.
Eight warships, four aircraft and more than a thousand personnel from the U.S. and all 10 countries from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations were taking part in the first ASEAN-U.S. Maritime Exercise (AUMX). Lasting five days and starting at the Sattahip Naval Base in Thailand and ending in Singapore, the drills come amid soaring tensions between Washington and Beijing, especially over the South China Sea.
But those tensions were likely to be balanced out by the ASEAN nations, some of which have taken a softer approach in their dealings with Beijing. China and ASEAN held similar joint maritime exercises — the first of their kind — last October.
Co-led by the navies of the United States and Thailand, the exercises will stretch into “international waters in Southeast Asia, including the Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea” before concluding in Singapore, the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet said in a statement.
“AUMX builds greater maritime security on the strength of ASEAN, the strength of our navy-to-navy bonds, and the strength of our shared belief in a free and open Indo-Pacific,” said Rear Adm. Joey Tynch, who oversees the U.S. Navy’s security cooperation in Southeast Asia.
Beyond Thailand and the United States, participating nations include Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam.
Beijing claims much of the South China Sea, though the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims in the waters, where the Chinese, U.S., Japanese and some other Southeast Asian navies routinely operate.
Neither Japan nor the U.S. have claims in the waters, but both allies have frequently stated their commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”
Vice Adm. Phil Sawyer, commander of the United States’ Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture-based 7th Fleet, noted that the groupings of forces have long sailed together during drills “throughout the year,” but praised the new exercises.
“AUMX provides a new multilateral venue to work together on shared maritime security priorities in the region,” he said.
The exercises come after a Chinese survey vessel last month extended its activities to an area closer to Vietnam’s coastline, according to ship-tracking data, after the U.S. and Australia expressed concern about Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea.
“China will not win the trust of its neighbors nor the respect of the international community by maintaining its bullying tactics,” the U.S. Defense Department said in a statement at the time.
Washington has ramped up its military moves in the South China Sea in recent days, sending a navy destroyer within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of two man-made, Chinese-held islets in the waterway on Wednesday. Both of the islands, Fiery Cross and Mischief Reefs, are home to military-grade airfields and other powerful weaponry.
Beijing condemned the action as an illegal attempt by Washington at “maritime hegemony.”
Last Tuesday, the U.S. also sent two B-52 heavy bombers and two F-15C fighter aircraft from Andersen Air Force Base on the U.S. territory of Guam for training in the vicinity of the South China Sea and off the coast of Japan, a U.S. Pacific Air Forces spokesman told The Japan Times.