China, SE Asian states hold simulated naval drill

China and Southeast Asian states held simulated naval exercises this week for the first time, Singapore said Friday, as they seek to lower long-running tensions in disputed waters. The "table-top" exercises at a Singapore naval base came ahead of the first naval drills between the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Beijing, scheduled for October. Four ASEAN states -- Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam -- have rival claims with Beijing over territory in the flashpoint South China Sea. China claims almost the entire sea and has been constructing artificial islands capable of hosting military bases in the waters, ratcheting up tensions with rival claimants and the US, the traditionally dominant naval power in the area. The simulated drill was held Thursday and Friday, Singapore's defence ministry said in a statement. It was timed to coincide with a series of ASEAN-led meetings in the city-state this week, including a security forum on Saturday at which US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will be seeking to reassure Asian allies of continued American commitment to the region. Washington has traditionally backed Beijing's rival claimants in South China Sea disputes and has stepped up naval patrols in the waters, angering China. Chinese and ASEAN navies developed plans for the October field drills, including how to deal with maritime incidents like search and rescue and medical evacuation, Singapore's defence ministry said in a statement. It also involved plans on approaching a distressed vessel, the statement said. "This table-top exercise has been a good first step for navies from ASEAN countries and China to work together to deal with maritime incidents at sea," said Colonel Lim Yu Chuan, a senior Singapore naval officer and exercise co-director. Captain Liang Zhijia of the Chinese navy said the simulated and field drills are good platforms to build trust and confidence. China and ASEAN this week announced they had agreed on a draft negotiating text as part of efforts to forge a code of conduct to govern behaviour in the South China Sea. The draft however showed that Beijing wanted to stage military drills with ASEAN in the seas that excluded outside countries, a move analysts said was aimed at diminishing US influence.