SATTAHIP, Thailand — A senior U.S. naval officer underlined Washington’s commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific as the United States on Monday launched its first joint naval exercise with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Rear Adm. Kenneth Whitesell spoke at the opening ceremony of the ASEAN-U.S. Maritime Exercise at the Sattahip naval base in eastern Thailand.

He said the multilateral exercise demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific, which Washington has been promoting to counter China’s increasing influence in Asia, including Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Several Southeast Asian countries contest the Chinese claims of ownership of almost all of the strategically important area. Beijing has asserted its claim by building seven islands and equipping them with military runways, missile defense systems and outposts.

Vice Adm. Charoenpol Khumrasri, of Royal Thai Navy, left and Rear Adm. Kenneth Whitesell, of the U.S. Navy, participate in the inauguration ceremony of ASEAN-U.S. Maritime Exercise in Sattahip, Thailand, Monday, Sep. 2, 2019.

The United States has been shoring up relations with allies and taking a higher military profile in the Pacific as part of its rivalry with China.

The joint operation, first proposed in 2017, involves eight warships and four aircraft from seven of ASEAN’s 10 countries, and more than 1,000 personnel. As well as practicing search and seizure operations, the exercise will work on interoperability in maritime asset tracking and division tactics.

“We are a robust constellation of allies and partners working collectively towards continued security and stability of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” said Whitesell. “There is no better signal of our desire to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific than the robust diversity of U.S. naval operations in this region.”

Officers of the U.S. Navy and maritime forces of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) participate in the inauguration ceremony of ASEAN-U.S. Maritime Exercise in Sattahip, Thailand, Monday, Sep. 2, 2019.

In response, the U.S. has accused China of bullying behavior and recently sailed an aircraft carrier through the disputed waters, one in a series of shows of military might that it calls freedom of navigation operations.

“We are in the Indo-Pacific to stay,” said Whitesell. “My promise to you is that we will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with all nations who share a mutual respect for and adherence to international law, as well as a vision of free and open Indo-Pacific.”

The ASEAN bloc is increasingly having to find a balance between Washington and Beijing. This inaugural exercise comes less than a year after China’s navy hosted a similar initiative off the coast of Guangdong.

The inclusion of representatives from Myanmar, an ASEAN member, has drawn criticism. Washington has sanctioned the Myanmar army’s top brass over its brutal repression of the Muslim Rohingya minority, and human rights groups think its navy should have been excluded.

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