Thu, Aug 02, 2018 - Page 6 News List

China to join war games off Australia, not live-fire drills

Reuters, SYDNEY

The Chinese navy is to join 26 countries in military exercises off Australia’s north coast this month, but not live-fire drills, Australian Minister for Defence Marise Payne said yesterday, at a time of strained ties between the two nations.

The naval exercises are being hosted by Australia and will also include its major ally, the US, which expelled China in May from its military training around Hawaii — a response to what it sees as Beijing’s militarization of islands in the South China Sea.

Ties between Australia and China hit a low after Canberra passed laws aimed at thwarting Chinese influence in domestic affairs and also over China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Australia has offered diplomatic support to US “freedom of navigation” voyages through the South China Sea and its own vessels encountered Chinese warships there in April.

However, Australia stuck with an invitation it issued China in September last year, a sign analysts say hints at a thawing in relations ahead of the drills that begin at the end of this month.

“China is expected to participate in a range of activities including passage exercises, inter-ship communications and replenishment activities and sea-training manoeuvres,” Payne said in an e-mailed statement.

“There are no plans for China to participate in live-fire activities,” she said, without giving a reason, but adding that the nations have “built a productive defence relationship that ... facilitates transparency and builds trust.”

The Chinese Ministry of National Defense did not respond to a request for comment.

The drills are to be held until the middle of next month in strategic waters north of Darwin, where a decision to lease the city’s port to a Chinese firm drew a sharp rebuke from the US.

China was involved in the drills as an observer in 2016. Only Britain declined an invitation to participate this time, a spokesman for Payne said in an e-mail.

Analysts suggest China’s involvement in the drills could mean a new willingness to engage.

“The Chinese government has tended to cut down on official visits and official interactions so perhaps this is a sign that senior Chinese officials are happier,” said Andre Carr, senior lecturer in the strategic and defense studies center at Australian National University.

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