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Joint US-China drills to make friends, not war

/ 05:05 AM June 25, 2014

BEIJING—Chinese warships will join US-led naval drills off Hawaii for the first time this week, in a significant but mainly symbolic effort by the two powers’ fighting forces to make friends, not war.

Rising giant China and superpower the United States frequently find themselves at loggerheads as Beijing asserts itself in maritime disputes with neighbors and Washington seeks to shore up its influence in Asia.

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Forging friendly ties or at least an understanding between the two heavyweights’ militaries is the key to preventing any unintended clashes from escalating, analysts say.

Yet “mil-to-mil” ties remain stunted by disputes and suspicions that have sharpened as each side accuses the other of inflaming tensions over contested islands in the East and South China Seas, aggressive cyberspying and other issues.

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“It’s pretty important,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the US-based Brookings Institution and author of a book on US-China relations.

“We have a situation where small crises, or skirmishes, blowing up into bigger things is one of our chief worries, and a situation where US-PLA ties at the military level are underdeveloped,” he said.

Four ships of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy with an estimated 1,100 sailors on board a missile destroyer, missile frigate, supply ship and hospital ship will join the United States and more than 20 other countries in the six-day “Rim of the Pacific” (Rimpac) drills that begin in and around Hawaii on Thursday.

First time

The Rimpac exercises, normally held every two years, began in 1971 but it is the first time Chinese vessels will take part.

The head of US Pacific Command, Adm. Samuel Locklear, said: “This was a big step for the Chinese to commit to this, particularly in an exercise commanded by a US commander.

“We just have to get past these issues that are historical in nature that are causing the region problems,” he added. “And if we keep working at it we’ll get through them.”

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Beijing has also touted its participation, with the official Xinhua news agency running an essay by naval academy researcher Zhang Junshe saying it “will have great benefits for the elimination of misunderstandings, the avoidance of misjudgment and the promotion of mutual trust.”

China’s involvement marks “a very good step,” O’Hanlon said in an e-mail. “In isolation, it doesn’t do a great deal of course, but it provides the basis for more.”

Beijing and Washington regularly pledge to strengthen ties across the board, and Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama held an informal get-to-know-you summit in California soon after the Chinese leader took office last year.

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TAGS: China, Diplomacy, Maritime Disputes, naval drills, US
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