Military officials from New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and Britain are holding exercises in the South China Sea this month in the latest display of force aimed at telling Beijing to back off on its claims to the disputed territory, one of the world's most important shipping routes.
The three-week, multinational exercise known as "Exercise Bersama Lima" will include navy, army and air force servicemen from the participating nations. Officials said the event organized by Singapore is aimed at regional security and disaster relief support, according to media reports.
The countries make up the Five Power Defense Arrangements military pact, which requires members to consult each other and take action if there is an armed attack on Malaysia or Singapore.
Indonesia's armed forced also plan to hold large scale military exercises this month with all of its three service branches in the Natuna Islands region in the South China Sea.
Growing tensions between China and its neighboring nations, which are backed up by the U.S., have sparked concern about a looming conflict in the region over the disputed waterway. China has increasingly sent more heavily armed coast guard vessels to patrol the shipping lane that carries up to $5 trillion in trade every year. An arbitration court in the Hague in July ruled that China did not have territorial claims, but Beijing said it did not recognize the decision.
"The risk of conflict in the South China Sea is significant," the Council on Foreign Relations concluded in a recent report. "China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines have competing territorial and jurisdictional claims, particularly over rights to exploit the region's possibly extensive reserves of oil and gas. Freedom of navigation in the region is also a contentious issue, especially between the United States and China over the right of U.S. military vessels to operate in China's two-hundred-mile exclusive economic zone."