Military officials from 11 countries in the Asia Pacific region met in Manila Monday to try to improve cooperation when maritime disasters strike in international waters. Participants included representatives from China and several countries that all have competing claims in nearby disputed waters.
Philippine military officials say this is the first time this many countries have come together for such “tabletop” maritime disaster response exercises.
Mid-level officers from countries including the Philippines, United States, China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan and South Korea worked through procedures for disaster response to scenarios including typhoons and earthquakes.
Several of these countries have territorial disputes with each other and with China over claims in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.
Vietnam's Defense Attache in Manila, Senior Colonel Hoang Kim Phung, says the squabbles over the competing claims are separate from these exercises.
“We always support and help other fishing boats - fishing vessels - from Philippines, from China and from other countries in emergency cases," he said. "We consider that very honorable.”
A year ago the Philippines and China were locked in a tense standoff at Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. The Philippines tried to arrest Chinese fishermen over alleged poaching of endangered marine life from what it says are its waters - as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Philippine Military spokesman Major Emmanuel Garcia says territorial disputes can be set aside when responding to disasters.
“All those issues are temporary," he remarked, "and what is permanent is that we are all human and we are all facing natural disasters and calamities and we must face those calamities together.”
In recent years the Philippines and Vietnam have complained about China’s claims to practically the entire South China Sea. They allege local fishermen are routinely harassed by Chinese ships, which Beijing denies.
Monday's exercise was part of the annual military drills between the Philippines and the United States, which share a mutual defense treaty.