China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has accepted an invitation to participate for the first time in a major US-hosted naval drill, but legal restrictions will limit its role to less sensitive exercises, like disaster relief, US officials say.
Beijing’s agreement to join the drills being held next year comes at a moment of heightened tensions between China and US ally Japan over disputed East China Sea islets, and unease in the US about China’s rapid military buildup and its cybercapabilities.
The Rim of the Pacific exercise (RIMPAC) is billed as the world’s largest international maritime exercise, with 22 nations and more than 40 ships and submarines participating the last time it was held off Hawaii last year.
Not all the participants are treaty allies with the US. Last year’s participants included Russia and India.
However, China has never participated in the event, although it did send observers to RIMPAC in 1998, the Pentagon said.
US Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter acknowledged China had agreed to participate in RIMPAC during a little-noticed speech on Wednesday in Jakarta. Carter said he was “delighted that they have accepted” the invitation, extended last year by then-US defense secretary Leon Panetta.
At the time, Panetta said he asked China to send a ship to the exercises. Beijing said later it would give the offer “positive consideration.”
“We seek to strengthen and grow our military-to-military relationship with China, which matches and follows our growing political and economic relationship,” Carter said, according to prepared remarks on the defense department’s Web site.
US law prohibits the Pentagon from any military contacts with the PLA if it could “create a national security risk due to an inappropriate exposure” to activities, including joint combat operations.
There is an exemption for operations or exercises related to search-and-rescue and humanitarian relief, and China participated with the US last year in a counterpiracy drill.
Lieutenant Colonel Catherine Wilkinson, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said China’s participation in RIMPAC would adhere to US law and said that precautions had been taken by the Navy in drills to avoid revealing sensitive information.
“The US Navy has operational security safeguards to protect US technology and tactics, techniques and procedures from disclosure,” Wilkinson said.
Dean Cheng, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, questioned whether Chinese intelligence operatives would not benefit from their participation in RIMPAC, which also includes live-fire exercises by key US allies.
“If they have a frigate, or even a hospital ship, in the middle of that exercise, the hospital ship is going to be staffed by intelligence officers,” Cheng said.
He said that if the drills were designed in a way that was unhelpful to the Chinese, they would also be unhelpful to allies.
Wilkinson declined to speculate about which drills China might participate in, saying that the agenda had not yet been set for next year’s event.
“US-China military-to-military engagements can include a range of activities in areas of mutual interest, including maritime security, military medicine and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief,” she said.