The Chinese and Vietnamese militaries will stage their first joint medical drills next week as Beijing continues a drive to woo its Southeast Asian neighbours as its competes for influence with the United States. On Monday, 84 People’s Liberation Army medics will join their counterparts from the Vietnamese People’s Army in the seven-day Peace Rescue 2021 joint exercises in Mong Cai, a Vietnamese city bordering the southwestern Chinese region of Guangxi, according to state-owned Xinhua news agency. Japan, Vietnam pledge closer ties amid ‘serious concerns’ over South China Sea It will be the first overseas drill the PLA medical corps has taken part in since the start of the pandemic. It comes as Beijing has stepped up its engagement with members of the Association of Southeast Asian nations, with President Xi Jinping hosting a virtual summit with the bloc two weeks ago and opening a Laos-China rail link on Friday. During the Asean summit, Xi said Beijing would upgrade its relationship with the bloc from a strategic partnership to a comprehensive strategic partnership – usually a sign of enhanced security cooperation – and pledged to “unswervingly” make Asean the priority of China’s neighbouring diplomacy. He also criticised “various negative factors that pose threats to peace” – a veiled reference to the US, which is also trying to increase its sway in the region and enraged Beijing in September when it unveiled the Aukus security alliance with Britain and Australia. Daniel Kritenbrink, the assistant US secretary of state responsible for East Asian affairs, has also been visiting the region this week. In Jakarta he told reporters that the US would increase its presence in the region to demonstrate its commitment to peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific and to Asean’s leading role. The Chinese and Vietnamese exercise, which starts on Monday, is expected to “enhance their ability to conduct joint operations, emergency response and coordination while deepening their pandemic-related communication and cooperation”, Chinese state news agency Xinhua said. According to the health bureau of the Central Military Commission Logistics Security Department, the joint exercise will simulate a major outbreak of disease after an earthquake to test their ability to stop it spreading. In addition to the medics, most of whom have experience from United Nations peacekeeping operations, the PLA also sent some of its most advanced field equipment. The joint medical exercises come amid growing concerns over the Omicron variant of Covid-19. Vietnam, which is still grappling with a Delta-driven outbreak, reported 13,677 new infections on Thursday although it has yet to report a case of the new strain. Vietnamese rush for train rides as US$900m China-built metro opens On Thursday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met his Vietnamese counterpart Bui Thanh Son and promised to provide 500,000 vaccines as well as 20 million yuan (US$3.1 million) to buy medical supplies, according to state-owned Vietnam News Agency (VNA). In a separate statement, the Chinese foreign ministry said the two sides discussed the joint production of Chinese vaccines in Vietnam and pledged to strengthen strategic communication and work to ensure supply chain stability. They also discussed maritime matters – one of the major areas of contention between the two countries. Vietnam is the most vocal critic of Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea , although a number of other countries have competing claims . The Chinese statement said the two sides had agreed to “work together to promote maritime cooperation and inject more ‘positive energy’ into the relationship”, while VNA reported that they had agreed to speed up negotiations for an “effective” code of conduct in the disputed waters. Beijing’s ongoing efforts to boost engagement with Southeast Asia also saw Defence Minister Wei Fenghe holding a video call with his Indonesian counterpart Prabowo Subianto on Tuesday. It is not known if the two discussed a current stand-off by coastguards from both countries over an Indonesian drilling operation off the Natuna isles but, according to the Chinese defence ministry, Wei said “existing disputes” should be properly managed. On Friday, Xi co-hosted a virtual ceremony with Laotian President Thongloun Sisoulith to mark the opening of the US$6 billion railway that links the Laotian capital Vientiane with the southwest Chinese city of Kunming. China warns Vietnam on outside interference in South China Sea The 414km (260-mile) segment, which took five years to construct, is a “flagship project” that would give a “boost to Laos’s strategy to transform itself from a landlocked country to a land-linked hub”, according to Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin. Wang Yi is also meeting senior ministers from Cambodia, which will chair Asean next year, Indonesia and Malaysia over the next few days.