BRUNEI-MUARA – Information-sharing between regional allies is crucial to maintaining international order in the hotly-contested South China Sea, a US naval commander said on Wednesday.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Brunei-US CARAT exercise, Rear Admiral Joey Tynch, who is responsible for US naval assets in Southeast Asia, said American air patrols in the strategic waters was to ensure “maritime domain awareness”.

“Everyone in the region [can] contribute and share information and help out with rules-based order, ” he told media aboard a demo flight for the US Navy’s P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft.

“We continue to sail, fly, in accordance with international law — all over the world — and while conducting freedom of navigation operations we will see other people on the seas,” he said referring to a recent operation conducted by the USS Larsen, which sailed within 12 nautical miles of Gaven and Johnson Reefs in the Spratly Islands — territory claimed by China.

The move angered Beijing, with China’s Defence Ministry calling the operation a “provocative”, saying it did not obstruct maritime navigation or overflight of other countries.

When asked whether the Pacific Fleet would continue to conduct freedom of navigation operations in the region, Tynch said he would not discuss forthcoming operations, but that such manoeuvres are “standard throughout the US Navy”.

The sail-by was the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, where China has built military facilities on islands and shoals.

US Chargé D’Affaires Scott Woodard said there was a need to ensure all countries can freely pursue trade in the sea, where US$5.3 trillion in goods passes through annually — US$1.2 trillion of that total accounting for trade with the US.

What we’re seeing is cooperation with Brunei, increasing maritime domain awareness, and that’s critical to allow countries here to do what they want to do and control their space… We all know what Brunei’s exclusive economic zone is and we are here to help Brunei maintain its sovereign rights to pursue the kind of policies it want to pursue.

Four ASEAN members — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — have conflicting claims in the South China Sea with Beijing. China claims sovereignty over almost the entire area, including waters that encroach the exclusive economic zones of smaller countries.

The P-8A Poseidon arrives at Rimba Air Base in Brunei after conducting a demonstration flight over Brunei waters. The aircraft and its crew were in the sultanate from Nov 12-16 for annual military drills with the Royal Brunei Armed Forces. Photo: Ain Bandial/The Scoop

The five-day CARAT exercise between the US and Brunei includes a range of engagements — a tracking exercise aimed at increasing both navies’ ability to together track and pursue targets through the coordinated deployment of surface ships and maritime patrol aircrafts; anti-air warfare (AAW) exercise to increase proficiency in missile defense; and division tactics designed to enhance communications as ships sail together in complex manoeuvres.

CARAT, which enters its 24th year, is just one of the activities the two countries hold within their broader defence relationship, which includes the annual Southeast Asia Cooperation Training (SEACAT) and biennial Rim of Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise. Last August, the training also expanded to include the first army-to-army exercise between the two countries, dubbed Pahlawan Warrior.

The two countries will also potentially work together in the upcoming US-ASEAN maritime exercise, which is slated for 2019.

“We are just now in the concept development for that exercise and both sides are very invested in it,” Tynch told reporters on board the Poseidon Wednesday.

“We continue to develop what that will be as we move forward. It will be another exercise much like ones you see — CARAT, SEACAT, and the Pacific Partnership.”

An American crew monitors vessels and movements in the South China Sea from a US Navy P-8A Poseidon reconnaissance plane. Photo: Ain Bandial/The Scoop

The announcement of the exercise was made just as China kicked off its inaugural naval drill with ASEAN countries in the South China Sea, aimed at easing tensions with rival claimants.

“The China-ASEAN exercise will have no impact on what we do with ASEAN, and with our own our partners and allies,” Tynch said.

“Next year will be the 25th anniversary of CARAT, so we continue to work with our partners, friends and allies to grow relationships. And with Brunei, we have had over 150 years of relationships between our two navies as we continue to go forward.”