Published: Fri, October 19, 2018
People | By Leon Thompson

Sitharaman holds bilateral talks with her US, ASEAN counterparts in Singapore

Sitharaman holds bilateral talks with her US, ASEAN counterparts in Singapore

Defence ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have agreed a set of guidelines for warplanes flying over the disputed South China Sea, and will invite China and the United States to sign up to the same code of conduct.

Beijing's expansive claims to the South China Sea have always been a source of friction with rival claimants in Southeast Asia, as well as Washington which has traditionally been the dominant naval power in the area.

Despite disagreements over Beijing's territorial ambitions, China is trying to strike a more conciliatory tone in an effort to stop a new Cold War erupting in the region.

The agreement, signed by defense ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at a conference in Singapore, includes a region-wide agreement on the exchange of information on terrorism threats.

Singapore's Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen announced the agreement at the annual Asean defence ministers' meeting in Singapore, which ends on Friday.

The two ministers noted the "positive trajectory" in bilateral defence relations, and affirmed both countries' cooperation on various regional multilateral platforms such as the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting (ADMM) and the ADMM-Plus, as well as the Five Power Defence Arrangements.

That framework seeks to advance a 2002 Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which has mostly been ignored by claimant states, particularly China, which has built seven islands in disputed waters, three of which are equipped with runways, surface-to-air missiles and radars.

Tabletop exercises between ASEAN and China were held in Singapore in August to prepare for next week's drills.

"The US is not losing ground exactly because ASEAN chooses to be open and inclusive", she told AFP.

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Mattis planned to meet in Beijing with Wei a few weeks ago, but Chinese officials said Wei was not available, one of several indications strained U.S.

They are aimed at reducing the likelihood that a chance encounter could spiral into conflict in the case of a miscalculation.

China claims nearly the entire South China Sea while Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei claim parts of the potentially energy-rich maritime territory.

Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand are ASEAN's other members.

The US has also been more assertive in recent months about its "freedom of navigation" rights in and over the disputed waters, much to Beijing's displeasure.

Mattis said that differences lie between the United States and China, but they do not necessarily mean confrontation, nor does competition mean hostility.

"No single nation can rewrite the worldwide rules of the road, and we expect all nations - large and small - to respect those rules", he added.

The Chinese government requested the meeting, according to senior Department of Defense officials traveling in Asia with Mattis.

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