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China hosts joint drills amid tensions in South China Sea

Chinese President Xi Jinping waves to deputies at the 13th National People's Congress in Beijing on Tuesday, March 20, 2018. (Lan Hongguang/Xinhua/Sipa USA/TNS)
November 14, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

A joint military exercise between China and five Southeast Asian nations opened Monday in Zhanjiang in southern Guangdong province, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reported.

The militaries from Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam have sent personnel and warships to the Aman Youyi-2023 (Peace and Friendship-2023) drills, which focus on joint anti-terrorism and maritime security, according to a statement from China’s Ministry of National Defense.

“The aim is to help participants enhance their urban anti-terrorism, maritime anti-terrorism and anti-piracy capabilities, and deepen military mutual trust and cooperation to safeguard regional peace and stability,” the ministry said.

It did not specify how long the drills off the coast of Zhanjiang will last but the Cambodian and Vietnamese defense ministries said Aman Youyi-2023 is expected to conclude on Nov. 22.

This is the first time Vietnam, Cambodia and land-locked Laos are taking part in the exercise, initiated by China and Malaysia in 2014. 

On Friday law enforcement vessels from China and the Philippines confronted each other over the latter’s resupply mission to its troops stationed at the disputed Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea.

Manila accused Beijing of blocking Philippine ships as well as firing water cannons at one of them. China said the ships trespassed into Chinese waters.

‘The right approach’

The Philippines in the past joined the drills as an observer but is not participating this time.

Vietnam and Malaysia, which also hold contesting claims over parts of the South China Sea, have sent teams to Zhanjiang.

“Some countries participating in the Aman Youyi-2023 exercise also have maritime disputes in the South China Sea, but they chose the right approach, which is not to let disputes affect friendship and cooperation and jointly safeguard regional peace and stability,” Chinese military expert Zhang Junshe was quoted as saying in the pro-Beijing Global Times.

Manila, however, took part in some large-scale U.S.-led regional military exercises such as Cobra Gold in March and Balikatan in April.

This year marks the fifth Aman Youyi exercise and the first hosted by China. The previous four editions were held in Malaysia.

Cambodia’s Ministry of Defense said it dispatched 92 soldiers to take part while Vietnam sent one of its Gepard-class frigates, the Quang Trung (016).

China has been seeking closer military-to-military cooperation with Southeast Asian countries to respond to what it calls “interference” from the United States and its allies.

China and Laos held a joint military exercise called Friendship Shield 2023 in Laos in May. In March, Cambodia and China carried out exercise Golden Dragon 2023 in Cambodia’s Kampong Chhnang province.