China suggests joint South China Sea drills with Asean

Chinese Minister of National Defense Gen. Chang Wanquan responds to a reporter's question as he and US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel conduct a media press briefing at the Pentagon 19 August 2013, in Washington, DC Image copyright AFP
Image caption China's defence minister Chang Wanquan has suggested drills for "maritime rescues and disaster relief"

China has proposed joint maritime drills with South East Asian nations in the hotly contested South China Sea in 2016.

Beijing is currently hosting an informal meeting for defence ministers from the region.

China's Defence Minister Chang Wanquan has suggested drills for "maritime rescues and disaster relief".

China's reclamation activities in the sea in recent years have raised tensions with its neighbours.

The Philippines and Vietnam, in particular, have overlapping claims with China.

China's proposal comes a week after the US announced it was considering sending ships to an area of the South China Sea China has claimed for itself, a suggestion which sparked strong words from China.

Read more: What is the South China Sea dispute?

The suggestion for joint drills was made on Friday at a meeting with defence ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) regional alliance.

The drills would be one way of achieving the aim of "jointly solving disputes and controlling risks", China's defence ministry said in a statement.

The offer "indicates potential for the conflict to de-escalate" and if Asean states agreed, the drills would be "a confidence-building measure that can ease tensions", military studies research fellow Daniel Wei Boon Chua, of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told the BBC.

William Choong, senior fellow at think-tank II-SS, called it "a conciliatory effort at blunting the bad press" and "to tamp down the temperature when you have US Navy ships possibly sailing in."

But he felt that the drills would be "unlikely" to take off, "because I don't see any concerted buy-in from Asean on joint patrols," he said.

Asean has had internal disagreements on a co-ordinated response to China on the South China sea dispute.

Image copyright AP
Image caption China has been reclaiming various islands and reefs in the area including Mischief Reef

China has been accused of militarisation and illegally expanding its maritime claims by reclaiming land around island reefs and building airstrips and structures on them. The US has called on China to halt such activities.

Vietnam on Tuesday alleged that China was constructing two lighthouses in the Spratly islands, and said it "resolutely rejects and vehemently protests China's action." The country saw anti-Chinese protests last year over a Chinese oil rig in a disputed area.

The Philippines has also taken China to a United Nations tribunal for arbitration over China's claims, although Beijing has refused to participate in the process.

China has insisted that it is developing areas within its sovereignty and that the structures are for civilian purposes such as fishing and rescue work.

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