Southeast Asia nations hold first joint navy drills near disputed South China Sea

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — The Association of Southeast Asian Nations began its first joint naval exercise on Tuesday at a time when several member countries are responding more strongly to increasing Chinese assertiveness in the area.

The non-combat drills, named ASEAN Solidarity Exercise, include joint maritime patrol operations, search and rescue operations, and humanitarian and disaster relief, Indonesian military chief Adm. Yudo Margono said.

He said the five-day exercise in Indonesia's Natuna waters aims to boost military ties among the ASEAN nations and enhance interoperability. The drills also involve civilian groups involved in humanitarian relief and disaster prevention.

ASEAN nations have taken part in naval exercises before with other countries — including both the United States and China — but this week’s drills are the first involving just the bloc and are being read by many as a signal to China.

China’s “nine-dash line,” which it uses to demarcate its claim to most of the South China Sea, has brought it into tense standoffs with rival claimants Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines, with Chinese fishing boats and military vessels becoming more aggressive in the disputed waters.