China and Malaysia will hold their first-ever joint military exercises next year, the Southeast Asian nation’s defence minister said Wednesday, despite their rival claims to the tense South China Sea.
The announcement by Hishammuddin Hussein, who is in Beijing to meet Chinese military leaders, follows a visit to Kuala Lumpur earlier this month by China’s President Xi Jinping, in which the two countries pledged closer ties.
“Malaysia and China are expected to launch our first joint exercise in 2014 after the Memorandum of Understanding on Defence Cooperation was signed in 2005,” Hishammuddin said in a statement sent to AFP.
The statement gave no details on the planned drills such as their location, scale, or which military branches would be involved.
A Malaysian defence ministry official confirmed they would be the first-ever drills between the two countries’ armed forces.
Hishammuddin, who met his counterpart General Chang Wanquan in China, also said he invited Chang to visit the Malaysian naval base of Mawilla 2 in the South China Sea on the island of Borneo.
The visit would be aimed at launching a “direct-contact” relationship with China’s fleet in the South China Sea.
The resource-rich waterway has become a potential military flashpoint in recent years as Beijing has pressed its claim to nearly all of it.
Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have various claims — some overlapping — to the sea, a vital thoroughfare for world trade and shipping traffic.
The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam are members, has sought to present a united front against China.
It was not immediately clear how Malaysia’s warming defence ties with China would be received in other ASEAN capitals.
While the Philippines and Vietnam have been involved in tense confrontations with China over the issue, Malaysia has sought to keep a lower profile in the dispute.
In recent years, China has become Malaysia’s top export market and a vital trade buffer against the world economic volatility, and their commerce and overall relationship has strengthened.
Xi’s visits to Indonesia and Malaysia and his attendance at a regional summit in Bali took on added significance after President Barack Obama cancelled his own plans to visit due to the recent US government shutdown.
The episode symbolically highlighted the two giants’ rivalry for influence in the Asia-Pacific and raised questions over Washington’s promise to refocus its attention on the region.
China agreed this year to discuss with ASEAN an eventual binding set of rules to prevent accidental conflict at sea, but analysts say Beijing will never give up its territorial claims and they predict maritime tensions will continue to simmer.
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