China and Singapore start joint naval drills

Philippine marines on exercise with their Amphibious Assault Vehicles during a landing at a beach facing the South China Sea north of Manila on September 21, 2019. Tensions are rising between the Philippines and China. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

BEIJING, Feb 24, 2021, SCMP. Beijing is moving to get its efforts to boost defence ties with its Southeast Asian neighbours back on track, with the start of a joint exercise on Wednesday between the Chinese and Singapore navies, South China Morning Post reported.

The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted some of China’s plans for greater military engagement in the region, aimed at countering the growing US challenge to Beijing’s claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea.

In a short statement, the Chinese defence ministry said the drill with the Singapore navy would include joint search and rescue, as well as communication exercises.

“This exercise is a consensus reached by the two navies, aimed at enhancing mutual trust, deepening friendship, promoting cooperation, and jointly promoting the construction of a maritime community with a shared future,” navy spokesman Gao Xiucheng said in the statement.

The drill is part of a 2019 agreement to deepen military ties between the two countries, which last conducted a joint naval drill in 2016. The agreement includes more high-level dialogue, academic and think tank exchanges, as well as an increase in the scale of existing bilateral exercises.

Beijing has been boosting its defence ties with its neighbours in response to stepped-up freedom of navigation operations by the US in the South China Sea. But the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted some of its planned manoeuvres.

About 3,000 Cambodian and Chinese soldiers were to take part in a two-week exercise with live ammunition next month. The drill was reportedly suspended by Cambodia, which blamed the pandemic and heavy flooding that damaged the country’s infrastructure.

Collin Koh, a maritime security analyst with Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said China was making up ground with the latest joint exercise after its defence diplomacy in the region was affected by the pandemic.

He pointed out that forces in most Southeast Asian countries had been heavily involved in pandemic control, reducing the potential for joint military exercises with China.

“Even if China is keen to engage in more intense defence diplomacy, the Southeast Asian partners have to be similarly willing and enthused about it,” Koh said.

“Much of the governments’ attention has been on pandemic control – for which their militaries are also quite heavily involved in routine day-to-day operations, especially border security – which has consequently reduced their bandwidth to engage in as much defence diplomacy as they would have desired,” he said.

Koh said the latest exercise between China and Singapore covered only the basic elements common in drills with the US and other partners such as Thailand, but was a sign that Beijing was consolidating its ties with Southeast Asia.

The Biden administration has vowed to strengthen US alliances in the region, pledging to support the Philippines in case of an attack in the South China Sea, where Manila and Beijing have competing territorial claims.

In a call with Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan in early February, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US-Singapore security and economic relationship was important, and affirmed the desire to strengthen cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.

“Definitely, given there’s little change expected in the Biden administration’s policy towards China, except in the approach to be undertaken, we can expect Beijing to continue to seek to improve defence diplomacy in Southeast Asia,” Koh said.

“But again, the pandemic does hamper how much of an inroad can be made for now,” he added.

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