The U.S. and China were both open to joining separate maritime drills with Southeast Asian nations as early as next year, Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations defense ministers meeting in the Philippines, Ng said Tuesday that China Defense Minister Chang Wanquan and U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis both welcomed the chance to participate, Ng said after meeting separately with Chang and Mattis.

“We’ll work out the details,” Ng said. “We will find a suitable area that Asean and China navies can exercise together.”

Singapore, which has long tried to balance the interests of the U.S. and China in the South China Sea, expects to be at the forefront of the region’s relations with both countries next year when it takes over from the Philippines as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned in March that his island nation risked being “coerced” into choosing between the two.

“From Singapore’s point of view, the more exercises we have with countries, the better for confidence-building,” Ng said.

‘New Page’

Ng said his Chinese counterpart hoped to “turn a new page” by conducting maritime exercises with the region where China’s South China Sea claims overlap with the territorial claims of five Asean countries — Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei.

An international court ruling last year rejected China’s claims to the more than 80 percent of the South China Sea in a case brought by the former Philippine President Benigno Aquino.

Malaysia’s Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said his country was also considering allowing Singapore and Brunei join trilateral sea patrols currently involving Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines to counter terrorism and piracy.

“There will be five,” Hishammuddin told reporters on the sidelines of Asean defense ministers meeting. “That is the way forward for Asean if we want to make sure that this region remains relevant in facing the challenges and not allow anybody to divide us.”

— With assistance by David Tweed

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