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Singapore defense minister: US, China open to sea drills with ASEAN

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis shakes hands with Singapore's Minister of Defense Ng Eng Hen following a meeting with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Defense Ministers (ASEAN) in Clark, Philippines on Oct. 24, 2017.

AMBER I. SMITH/U.S. ARMY

By ANDREO CALONZO AND DITAS LOPEZ | Bloomberg | Published: October 24, 2017

The U.S. and China are open to joining separate maritime drills with Southeast Asian nations, Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations defense ministers meeting in the Philippines, Ng said Tuesday that China Defense Minister Chang Wanquan and U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis both welcomed the chance to participate. He spoke after meeting separately with Chang and Mattis.

"We'll work out the details," Ng said. "We will find a suitable area that Asean and China navies can exercise together."

Singapore, which has long sought to balance the interests of the U.S. and China in the region, expects to be at the forefront of Southeast Asia's ties with both countries next year when it takes over from the Philippines as chair of Asean. Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned in March his island nation risked being "coerced" into choosing between the two.

"From Singapore's point of view, the more exercises we have with countries, the better for confidence-building," Ng said.

Ng said his Chinese counterpart hoped to "turn a new page" by conducting maritime exercises with the region. Beijing's South China Sea assertions overlap with the territorial claims of Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei. China wants the drills to happen as soon as next year, Ng added.

"This idea was openly floated and I haven't heard any objections to it," Ng said. "This is an exercise to build friendship and trust."

An international court last year rejected China's claims to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea in a case brought by then-Philippine President Benigno Aquino.

Malaysia's Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said his country was also considering allowing Singapore and Brunei join sea patrols now conducted by Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines against terrorism and piracy.

"There will be five," Hishammuddin told reporters on the sidelines of the ministerial meeting. "That is the way forward for Asean if we want to make sure that this region remains relevant in facing the challenges and not allow anybody to divide us."

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