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By Fathin Ungku

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - The navies of China and Southeast Asia held their first maritime exercise this week, Singapore's defence ministry said on Friday, in an effort to widen cooperation as they negotiate a code of conduct on a disputed waterway.

The "tabletop" simulated exercise in the city-state involved the navies of China and all 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), ahead of the first maritime drill set to be held in waters in China in October.

"At the end of the exercise, we have strengthened our ability to work together," Colonel Lim Yu Chuan, the commanding officer of the Singapore navy's 185 Squadron told reporters.

"We have achieved a greater understanding among the ASEAN navies and the PLA navy," he added, in a reference to the Chinese navy.

The bloc and China hailed progress on Thursday in a long, drawn-out process to negotiate a code of conduct in the disputed South China Sea, one of the world's busiest waterways, where China and some of the bloc's members have conflicting claims.

The exercises come as more nations, many ASEAN members among them, are drawn into China's orbit as the United States finds it difficult to promote its policy of engaging Asia while promising to put "America First".

The navy drills were carrying China's cooperation with Southeast Asia to a new level, its top government diplomat, Wang Yi, said on Thursday.

"We will use these drills as a starting point to expand China and ASEAN's military communications and security cooperation, to together face security concerns and to protect the stability of the region," Wang told a news conference.

China's navy also plans to join 26 countries in military exercises off Australia's north coast this month hosted by Canberra and involving the United States.

(Reporting by Fathin Ungku and Christian Shepherd; Editing by Jack Kim and Clarence Fernandez)

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Reuters