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Southeast Asia hails world’s first multilateral air encounter code

SINGAPORE: Southeast Asian countries agreed on Friday to guidelines to manage unexpected encounters between their military aircraft, with host Singapore calling the pact a world first and saying they would encourage their international partners to join.

The agreement, signed by defence ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at a conference in Singapore, includes a region-wide pact on the exchange of information on terrorism threats.

The voluntary, non-binding guidelines on air encounters build on an existing code to manage sea encounters adopted last year by ASEAN and its “plus” partners — Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea and the United States.

“I am happy to announce the first multilateral guidelines for air encounters between military aircraft have been adopted,” Singapore’s defence minister, Ng Eng Hen, told a news conference.

“This is a significant achievement.”

The Asean ministers will meet their eight international partners on Saturday and Ng said they would “seek their agreement” on the guidelines.

The framework for the guidelines said a pact was needed because Asia’s rising growth and prosperity had spurred an increase of maritime and air traffic in the region.

The United States and China in 2015 signed a pact on a military hotline and rules governing air-to-air encounters. But even with the existing guidelines, tensions remain, especially in the hotly contested South China Sea.

Asked if the sea guidelines were working, Ng said, “In a way they are like seatbelts, not completely protected, but at least they provide some protection.”

At a lunch meeting with his ASEAN counterparts, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said the United States wanted a “constructive relationship” with China but remained concerned by what it saw as the militarisation of the South China Sea. — Reuters

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