WASHINGTON, June 17 (UPI) -- The U.S. Navy has begun with its annual Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training SEACAT exercise.
The 2011 operation, which began Wednesday and runs through next Friday, is the 10th in the series of annual multilateral maritime operations. The Navy is operating in conjunction with ASEAN members the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, Radio Free Asia reported.
The geographical breadth of the operation is wide-ranging, including exercises in the Malacca Strait, Sulu and Celebes Seas.
More than 50,000 vessels ply the 621-mile Malacca Strait each year, carrying half of the world's oil shipments carried by sea.
The SEACAT operation is intended to enhance maritime information-sharing and the regional coordination of maritime security responses. During the exercise, the navies involved in SEACAT will undertake drills to include tracking maritime vessels as well as boarding of U.S. civilian shipping simulating international merchant vessels suspected of engaging in maritime terrorist related activities.
Philippines navy spokesman Lt. Col. Omar Tonsay said that the operation is intended to enhance interoperability among the participating navies.
The operation is occurring amid rising tensions in the South China Sea, where China's increasingly assertive behavior over territorial waters claims has raised concerns with the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, as well as non-ASEAN members Kampuchea and Taiwan.
The waters are essential for Chinese energy exports. A prominent Chinese shipping executive, speaking on background, said that by 2015 China will need nearly 150 Very Large Crude Carrier tankers to meet its energy needs.
VLCCs are the second-largest class of tankers, displacing 200,000-320,000 tons, and are capable of carrying 2 million barrels of oil.
Tankers are second only to pipelines in terms of efficiency and the efficiency of large volume transport means that importing oil by tanker adds only 2-3 U.S. cents per gallon to cost. Virtually all VLCCs carrying crude oil to China pass through Southeast Asian waters using the Malacca Strait.
SEACAT 2011 exercise director Filipino navy Capt. Sebastian Pan said of the maritime operation, "This activity will involve surface, air, and special operations units in the conduct of surveillance, tracking, and boarding of the COI from the different participating navies within their respective maritime territories."
The United States and Philippines will participate in joint naval exercises following SECAT until July 8 in the Sulu Sea, the eastern province of Palawan, which were planned before sovereignty disputes between the Philippines and China increased in the South China Sea.