Southeast Asian navies are heading to their first joint exercises with China in its southern waters next week, and defense officials agreed Friday to conduct a similar drill with the U.S. next year.
Singapore's Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said the drills in waters surrounding Zhanjiang will build trust and confidence among the navies participating.
"As we speak, the navies of ASEAN are en route to Zhanjiang in China for the ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise," Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said to The Straits Times.
The defense ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations said in a joint declaration their planned exercises would "enhance friendship and confidence between ASEAN member states' navies and the People's Liberation Army Navy and the U.S. Navy."
The officials said at a news conference that the location and extent of the second exercise had not been decided.
ASEAN defense ministers are in Singapore with U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Wei Feng, for an Asian security conference this weekend.
Mattis said he remains keen for a "constructive relationship" with China but expressed concern about its military activities in the disputed South China Sea.
Tang Siew Mun, head of the ASEAN Studies Centre at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said more joint activities are likely.
"Strategically, it signals ASEAN's current and future advances in security cooperation with China will not come at the expense of its good and long-standing ties with the U.S.," Tang said as quoted by Miami Herald.