BEIJING — A Chinese naval squadron has left port to take part for the first time in the world’s largest naval exercises hosted by the U.S. in waters near Hawaii, the Defense Ministry said Tuesday.
China’s participation in the Rim of the Pacific exercises is seen as an opportunity to build mutual trust amid tensions at sea with neighbors ranging from Vietnam and the Philippines to the south, to Japan in the east.
Washington and Beijing have been seeking closer military ties following an incident last December when a U.S. Navy cruiser, the USS Cowpens, nearly collided with a ship accompanying China’s sole aircraft carrier in the South China Sea — the most serious sea confrontation between the two nations in years.
Twenty-three countries will participate in this year’s drills, including Canada, India, Japan and South Korea. The exercises begin June 26 and last through Aug. 1
A Defense Ministry statement said that the destroyer Haikou, missile frigate Yueyang, the oiler Yueyang, and hospital ship Peace Ark departed Monday. It said the squadron is carrying 1,100 officers and sailors, including a commando unit and diving team, along with two helicopters.
The statement quoted navy Deputy Chief of Staff Hong Xumeng as saying China’s participation in the drills constituted “an important mission of military diplomacy” and a further step in strengthening China-U.S. relations.
“It’s also a new development in exploring ways of strengthening friendly relations with countries of the South Pacific through public diplomacy,” Hong was quoted as saying.
China has never before dispatched ships to take part in the exercises, although it sent military observers to watch the drills in 1998.
Chinese and U.S. naval vessels have rarely exercised together. Last year, China sent a guided missile cruiser, a frigate and a supply ship to Hawaii for a search-and-rescue exercise with the U.S.
This year, the Peace Ark will participate in medical exchanges, while the other ships are expected to join a maritime interdiction operations task force.
The exercises are held every other year and are the world’s largest maritime exercises.
Frictions along China’s maritime periphery have heightened the need for better communication and closer coordination with other countries’ navies. Chinese patrol boats are currently involved in standoffs over clashing territorial claims with its neighbors in the South China Sea, along with Japan over disputed uninhabited islands north of Taiwan.
Earlier this month, the U.S., China and two dozen Asia-Pacific nations adopted an agreement to improve communication at sea to reduce the possibility of misunderstandings that could lead to conflict in the heavily trafficked sea lanes surrounding China, Japan and Southeast Asia.