Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe has hailed the first, week-long naval exercise by China and ASEAN nations, off the city of Zhanjiang in southern Guangdong province, as a milestone showcasing the shared resolve of China and ASEAN states to safeguard regional peace.

Wei made the remarks while meeting heads of military observer groups from the 10 ASEAN nations in Zhanjiang, prior to the start of the symbolic drill on Monday.

It is the first time that ASEAN has conducted a joint drill with a single country outside the bloc. Participants will compare notes on rescue, military medication and diving techniques, followed by a session to formulate contingency plans and strategies for a variety of hypothetical scenarios, according to the People’s Daily.

Three Chinese vessels – the destroyer Guangzhou, frigate Huangshan and replenishment ship Junshanhu – will sail along with five vessels from ASEAN nations. The latter vessels are a frigate from Singapore (the Stalwart), plus frigates from Thailand and Vietnam, a logistic support vessel from the Philippines (the Dagupan City) and a patrol vessel from Brunei.

Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar just sent observers to the drill. It is not known if Laos was involved in the exercise.

The ASEAN delegations were also invited to inspect a new Chinese-guided missile destroyer and training ship from the People’s Liberation Army’s Zhanjiang-based South Sea Fleet.

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The PLA’s South Sea Fleet tasked with defending the Beijing-claimed atolls in the South China Sea has its headquarters in the coastal city of Zhanjiang. Photo: NetEase

One focus of the ongoing drill is maritime safety, as well as search and rescue operations featuring the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES).

The code is an agreement reached at the 2014 Western Pacific Naval Symposium to reduce the chance of an incident at sea between signatory countries, and to prevent any conflict from escalating.

The code, a set of communications protocols, was first broached a decade earlier, but China opposed earlier versions, reportedly unhappy with the word “code” (implying legal force) in the title.

China later made it clear that its support for the CUES did not suggest any change in its position on its territorial claims that covered the majority of the South China Sea.

In December 2014, the Chinese and US navies practiced for unplanned encounters during an anti-piracy exercise in the Gulf of Aden and during the 2015 deployment of the USS Fort Worth to the South China Sea. The US littoral combat ship encountered several Chinese warships, the first time that the CUES rules were put into practice in a “professional” manner.

Maritime drill off Malaysia also

Apart from the maritime drill off China, armed forces from the PLA, Malaysia and Thailand are conducting a 10-day drill in areas off Port Dickson in Malaysia.

Some 692 PLA seamen from its Southern Theater Command, including an unspecified number of troops from the Hong Kong and Macao Garrisons, will man the three warships, two shipboard helicopters, three Il-76 airlifters and four armored vehicles in Malaysia, the Chinese defense ministry said in a statement last week.

Chinese papers said the two drills came in the “most sensitive field of defense”, stressing that China and the ASEAN would cherish the rapport to manage disputes and resist meddling by powers from outside the region.

The Global Times also noted that joint China-ASEAN maritime patrols could possibly take place in the South China Sea.

Yet ASEAN and the US have also signed a deal to hold similar joint drills in the contested waters next year.