Published — Saturday 1 December 2012
Last update 30 November 2012 9:32 pm
CHENGDU, China: The Chinese and US militaries held joint disaster response exercises yesterday, as Beijing increases its global reach and Washington continues its “pivot” to the Pacific.
During the mock drills at a Chinese military base on the outskirts of Chengdu the two sides worked together on computer-generated disaster scenarios — in fictionalized countries.
“China and the US are separated by the Pacific Ocean. Our two militaries joining hands... answers to the aspirations of the two sides,” Tang Fen, of the People’s Liberation Army, told reporters after the two-day exercise finished.
“This plays a very important role in relations between our two nations and two militaries.”
US Major General Stephen Lyons said: “If there is a country out there, and inevitably there will be, that will have a natural disaster, and they call for international help, if US forces and Chinese forces respond, then indeed we’ll find ourselves working together in the field.”
Earlier this week visiting US navy secretary Ray Mabus welcomed China to participate in future US-led joint naval exercises, and reiterated an invitation made by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta when he visited in September.
“The Chinese side thanks the US side for the invite, and will give it positive consideration,” Geng Yansheng, spokesman for the Chinese defense ministry, said in remarks posted on its website yesterday.
Separately, Southeast Asia’s top diplomat warned yesterday of great anxiety over China’s plan to board and search ships that illegally enter what it considers its territory in the disputed South China Sea, saying it could spark naval clashes and undermine confidence in the region’s economy.
Seeking to ease alarm over the issue, China said it attached “great importance” to freedom of navigation in waters that have some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
New rules that take effect on Jan. 1 will allow police in the southern Chinese province of Hainan to board and seize control of foreign ships which “illegally enter” Chinese waters, the official newspaper said on Thursday.
Surin Pitsuwan, secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), said the Chinese plan was a “very serious turn of events”.
“It certainly has increased a level of concern and a level of great anxiety among all parties, particularly parties that would need the access, the passage and the freedom to go through,” Surin told Reuters by telephone from Thailand.
Using unusually strong language, Surin said the plan could trigger a major incident that would affect confidence in East Asia, a key engine of global economic growth.
Several countries have overlapping sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, which is believed to be rich in oil and gas. It is the region’s biggest potential military flashpoint.
A summit of Asian nations this month was overshadowed by disagreements between China and the Philippines over the dispute. Tensions were fanned again by China’s move to issue new passports containing a map of its maritime claims.