Mattis and his Chinese counterpart to meet following canceled talks

U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis right is greeted by Vietnam's Air Force Deputy Commander Gen. Bui Anh Chung second from right as he visits Bien Hoa airbase where the U.S. army stored the defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War in Bien Hoa

U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis right is greeted by Vietnam's Air Force Deputy Commander Gen. Bui Anh Chung second from right as he visits Bien Hoa airbase where the U.S. army stored the defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War in Bien Hoa

China and Southeast Asian nations will hold their first joint maritime exercises next week in a move aimed at easing tensions in the region.

In August, Southeast Asian nations and China adopted a negotiating framework for a broader code of conduct in the South China Sea.

"I am happy to announce the first multilateral guidelines for air encounters between military aircraft have been adopted", Singapore's defense minister, Ng Eng Hen, told a news conference.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is preparing to meet in Singapore with his Chinese counterpart just weeks after a meeting planned for Beijing fell apart amid growing friction between the U.S. and China.

The South China Sea, where a number of nations - including China - have overlapping claims, was high on the agenda at the summit.

In an apparent effort to lessen any such fears, Ng also said ASEAN was planning to hold maritime exercises with the United States for the first time next year.

That framework seeks to advance a 2002 Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which has mostly been ignored by claimant states, particularly China, which has built seven islands in disputed waters, three of them equipped with runways, surface-to-air missiles and radars.

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"The US is not losing ground exactly because ASEAN chooses to be open and inclusive", she told AFP.

Four ASEAN members - Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam - have conflicting claims in the South China Sea with Beijing.

China claims sovereignty over nearly the entire area, including waters near the shores of smaller countries.

U.S. officials have long expressed dismay at China's construction of industrial outposts and military facilities on artificial islands in the South China Sea but have mostly reserved their reactions to verbal outbursts.

Washington has expressed alarm over the island-building, saying it could affect freedom of navigation in the sea, which hosts some of the world's most vital commercial shipping lanes.

Chinese State Councilor and Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe (R) meets with U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis in Singapore, on October 18, 2018.

Military relations between Washington and Beijing had deteriorated in recent weeks over a bitter trade war, USA sanctions against China's military for buying weapons from Russian Federation, and Beijing's creation of military outposts in the South China Sea.

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