China, Asean navies hold drill to ease tensions

Trade war also had a key role in ruining relations

Mattis and his Chinese counterpart to meet following canceled talks

Defence ministers of the 10 Asean member states signed a joint declaration on Friday (Oct 19) at the annual Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting (ADMM), pledging to promote regional peace and stability, as well as deepening cooperation in counter-terrorism, air and sea safety, and cyber security, among other things.

US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and his Chinese counterpart sought Thursday to normalise military relations that have dramatically soured in recent weeks over trade and sanctions tensions.

ASEAN defence ministers will also be meeting with defence chiefs from major countries outside the region, including the US, China, India and Russian Federation, in a series of meetings through Saturday. But U.S. officials say they sense relations with the Chinese military may be stabilizing after a rocky few months.

"No single nation can rewrite the worldwide rules of the road, and we expect all nations - large and small - to respect those rules", he added.

"If we can have that sort of activity going on, it's transparent, something that's been lacking in the South China Sea".

Mattis's attempts to carve a better relationship with the Chinese military stands in contrast to the anti-Chinese rhetoric from the White House.

Earlier this year, Mattis cited China's military presence on some land features in the South China Sea as his reason for disinviting the Chinese military from an global naval exercise in the Pacific.

This month, China expressed anger after a U.S. Navy destroyer sailed near islands it claims, saying it resolutely opposed an operation that it called a threat to its sovereignty.

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"The (US) secretary making very clear we will continue to operate where worldwide law allows", Schriver told reporters.

Most countries view the Chinese government's vast territorial claims in the sea as in direct violation of global law, but this has not stopped Beijing from building up and weaponizing islets and reefs.

Wei and Mattis were in Singapore this week for an Association of Southeast Asian Nations conference where China's increasing assertiveness on the world stage was an expected topic.

Wei has a standing invitation to visit the United States but no date was agreed for his trip, Schriver said.

Late last month two warships almost collided near the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by China, and on Tuesday, the US Pacific Air Force conducted "routine" exercises over the South China Sea - another move that risked Beijing's ire.

It is important to note that while President Donald Trump continues to be antagonistic towards China, the Pentagon, the country's military arm, continues to act as the voice of reason and moderation when it comes to dealing with the Asian superpower.

"In some instances, other countries may not have the confidence given China's strength to always speak up, but (Mattis) wanted to let Minister Wei know that he hears about it a great deal from other countries", Schriver said.

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