September 15, 2005

Maritime concerns drive Southeast Asia war games

KUANTAN, Malaysia (Reuters) - Australia, Britain, Malaysia,
New Zealand and Singapore signaled the growing importance of
Asian maritime security on Thursday, starting their annual
war-games with a strong focus on naval exercises.

Twenty-six naval ships, one of the biggest fleets assembled
in the 34-year-old joint exercise, gathered in the South China
Sea, off Malaysia and Singapore, for drills increasingly
designed to tackle terrorism rather than wage conventional war.

"Terrorism can occur anywhere. The threat here in this
region is probably no greater and no less than in other areas,"
New Zealand Air Commodore R.J. Newlands said at the launch.

But the strength of the naval contingent reflects growing
concerns in Southeast Asia on maritime security, military
officials said, with the Malacca Strait, carrying a quarter of
world trade, dogged by piracy and fears of a terror attack.

The exercise, which runs until September 28, is part of an
upgrading of a Five Powers Defense Arrangements (FPDA) pact.

The accord was established in 1971, primarily to protect
Malaysia and Singapore, formerly British colonies, from
invasion. Its focus has recently been widened from traditional
warfare to include counter-terror operations.

The exercise will also include 74 military aircraft, one
submarine and 3,000 soldiers, and will cover Peninsular
Malaysia, Singapore and the South China Sea, the military
officials said.

"The main objective of the exercise is to conduct combined
joint operations in a multi-threat scenario," Malaysian defense
chief Admiral Mohamed Anwar Mohamed Nor told reporters at the
launch in the northeastern city of Kuantan.

"So far there's no real threat yet...we are always prepared
for such contingencies," he added.

Security experts are especially concerned about the Malacca
Strait, which threads its way between Malaysia, Indonesia and
Singapore. It links the oil-producing nations of the Middle
East with East Asian oil guzzlers such as Japan and China.

These three littoral countries and Thailand started joint
air patrols of the waterway this week. The planes will operate
from all four countries, using radar and digital imaging to
spot pirates and direct naval and coastguard vessels to
intercept them.