US, China navies urge more cooperation

Top navy officials from the United States and China have called on navies in the region to work more closely together to check tensions in the South China Sea and beyond.

Asia Pacific navies should expand their existing cooperation in areas like fighting piracy and on search-and-rescue missions, United States' chief of naval operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, told a conference here on Tuesday.

They could also share more information and coordinate patrols to build trust, he added.

Otherwise, "unilateral action will increase the risk of miscalculation and misunderstanding out there", Admiral Greenert said.

Rear Admiral Wei Xueyi, chief of staff of China's South Sea Fleet, also called for greater maritime interaction, including on the tactical level, citing counter-terrorism. "We can also work together on maritime research like hydrological and meteorological survey and analysis, sharing data and skills."

They were speaking at an International Maritime Security Symposium organised by the Indonesian Navy to foster greater cooperation among navies from the Pacific and Indian Oceans, at a time when the risk of conflict has escalated.

Territorial spats in East Asia in recent weeks - in particular over Beijing's declaration of a new air defence identification zone (ADIZ) - have raised temperatures. Beijing has sought to downplay concerns, amid fears that it might in future declare such a zone over the South China Sea.

Rear Admiral Wei reiterated China's commitment to resolve maritime disputes peacefully. But he deflected a question on the ADIZ, saying: "That is outside the scope of the symposium."

He added: "If you want, we should get our government officials to sit down and discuss that."

Indonesian Navy chief Admiral Marsetio, said he hoped building trust among militaries would improve relations.

Singapore Navy chief Rear Admiral Ng Chee Peng, said such exercises should also look beyond the military and involve others with a stake in maritime security, such as port authorities.

The US has signalled its intention to devote more attention to the region. The US navy, Admiral Greenert said, had been in the region for six decades "and will continue to be here when it matters, where it matters".

Indonesian Defence Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro said countries are obliged to accept that territorial conflicts will take a long time to resolve. "Given that reality, the next best option is to focus on confidence-building and ensure that there is enough predictability among conflicting states," he said.

He stressed that respect of international law was the best way to ensure and manage maritime freedoms, citing the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which guarantees, among others, that the high seas are open to all states for freedom of navigation, overflight and fishing, and how these should be exercised.

Veteran Indonesian diplomat Hashim Djalal said sporadic instances of confrontation were not helpful, but did not name any countries: "If you want to talk peace, you don't bring your guns along."

zakirh@sph.com.sg


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