Three Chinese ships on Tuesday sailed east to join rare naval drills with the US as Beijing as Beijing ramps up its military diplomacy amid regional territorial disputes and other tensions.
The ships left the port of Qingdao to participate in search-and-rescue drills with the US Navy in the waters off Hawaii. Afterward, the ships will continue on to Australia and New Zealand for similar exercises.
The naval drills build on a commitment to create stronger ties made by US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) at a June summit in California, and are an “important mission of military diplomacy,” deputy navy commander Xu Hongmeng said, according to the People’s Liberation Army Daily.
There have been only a handful of exercises at sea involving the two countries’ navies, and this week’s drills are the first since an unprecedented joint anti-piracy exercise was held last year off Somalia.
The ships’ departure came during a visit to the US by Chinese Minister of Defense Chang Wanquan (常萬全), during which he and US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel spoke of expanded military cooperation. During the visit, Hagel said he would visit China next year for the first time since assuming the Pentagon’s top job in February.
The US and Chinese militaries are also exchanging military officers for academic studies and holding talks on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Next year, China’s navy will participate for the first time in a major international maritime exercise known as Rim of the Pacific.
The expanding military ties are part of an on-again, off-again drive to build mutual trust even as Beijing continues to express wariness over Washington’s strategic “pivot” to Asia, in which the bulk of US Navy vessels are being positioned in the Pacific and broader alliances have been struck with regional allies such as Australia. China sees the moves as an effort to counter its expanding military and contain its growing economic and political influence.
China’s disputes with Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and other Asian neighbors over territorial boundaries in the South China Sea are also an irritant, even though the US insists it does not take sides in territorial claims.
The Chinese navy flotilla on the current mission is made up of a supply ship, a frigate and the guided missile destroyer Qingdao, which has taken the lead in China’s naval diplomacy with visits to 21 countries. It also includes one shipboard helicopter and 680 officers and sailors.