The first joint field exercise between the navies of China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations began on Monday off the coast of southern China.
The ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise is being held through Sunday off Zhanjiang, Guangdong Province, in the South China Sea where China's territorial claims overlap those of four ASEAN states -- Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
The field training exercise, co-organized by the navies of China and Singapore, involves naval ships from China, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, and more than 1,000 personnel.
The 10-member ASEAN also includes Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos and Myanmar.
At an opening ceremony at Ma Xie Naval Base attended by representatives of all 11 countries, Singapore's navy chief Rear Adm. Lew Chuen Hong emphasized the South China Sea's importance to the region, and how mutual prosperity is only possible if the sea is stable and secure.
"To allow the stable and collective use of a shared space, a set of common rules and understanding is very important," he was quoted as saying by Singapore's Straits Times newspaper.
He gave as examples of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, adopted in 1982, and the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea that was agreed to by ASEAN and regional powers last year.
On Sunday, Chinese Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe said in a meeting with the heads of the ASEAN delegations that the exercise marks an important milestone in the history of China-ASEAN relations, while demonstrating the confidence and determination of both sides to maintain regional peace and stability.
The field exercise was proposed China in 2015 and agreed to at a meeting between Wei and ASEAN defense ministers last February.
As an initial step, a two-day tabletop exercise, which focused on developing plans to conduct joint rescue operations at sea, was held between Chinese and ASEAN navies in Singapore in August.
At ASEAN defense ministers' meeting in Singapore last week, they reaffirmed the ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise as an important confidence-building measure and revealed that a similar field exercise will be held with the U.S. Navy next year.
It would be the first of its kind involving the United States and all 10 ASEAN countries and appears to be aimed at striking a balance between China and the United States -- the two major powers with considerable influence in the region, especially in the South China Sea.