China and Southeast Asian nations may hold a joint naval exercise next year to help build trust, Singapore's defense minister said Tuesday, following years of acrimony over rival claims in the South China Sea.
Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan on Tuesday attended a security forum hosted by the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations and pushed for the maritime drill, according to Singapore's Ng Eng Hen.
"This idea was openly floated and I haven't heard any objections to it," Ng told reporters on the sidelines of the forum in Clark, a northern Philippine city.
"This is an exercise to build friendship and trust."
China claims nearly all of the sea, through which $5 trillion in annual trade passes, even waters approaching the coasts of its neighbors.
Its claims overlap with those of ASEAN members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Taiwan.
The dispute has long been seen as a potential military flashpoint in the region.
Tensions have increased in recent years as China has sought to cement its claims with the building of artificial islands in the sea and installing military aircraft and missile systems on them.
The Philippines, under the previous presidency of Benigno Aquino, had rallied ASEAN to take a united stand against Chinese actions in the sea and won a ruling from an international tribunal that China's claims were unlawful.
However tensions eased after Rodrigo Duterte succeeded Aquino in the middle of last year and reversed the Philippines' stance, preferring instead to pursue closer economic and political ties with China.
Ng said China wanted to conduct the joint exercise next year and Singapore would help arrange it.
"We will work out the details, the (logistics) and find a suitable area that ASEAN and China navies can exercise together," Ng said.
Singapore is the ASEAN-China coordinator and will next year hold the regional grouping's rotating chairmanship.
US Defense Secretary James Mattis also attended the two-day event, during which North Korea's nuclear ambitions were one of the top agenda items.