US destroyer and PLA warship team up on drill

First joint anti-piracy exercise is acclaimed as a success and is seen to have symbolic significance

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 September, 2012, 2:48pm

Sino-US military exchanges reached a significant high-water mark this week with the first joint anti-piracy exercises between the two navies.

Both militaries confirmed yesterday that the five-hour exercise took place in the Gulf of Aden on Monday - a day before Defence Minister General Liang Guanglie , met his US counterpart, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, in Beijing and pledged to expand such contact.

Liang said the People's Liberation Army and the Pentagon should enhance co-operation in non-traditional areas, including anti-piracy efforts and medical rescues - something Washington has been pushing for some time. "This will inject new meaning into military-to-military ties," Liang said during Panetta's first visit to Beijing.

Previous exercises had been limited to search-and-rescue and coastguard operations.

A statement from the Bahrain-based US Fifth Fleet referred to Monday's "unique" operation, which saw the guided missile destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill team up with the PLA naval frigate Yiyang, a modern multi-role warship. They staged a mock boarding, search and seizure operation on a suspected pirate vessel.

"The focus was on bilateral interoperability in detecting, boarding and searching suspected vessels as well as the ability of both Chinese and American naval assets to respond to pirated vessels," the US statement said. "Executing the boarding side-by-side as a combined US-Chinese team, the team successfully searched the vessel and provided assistance to the role-playing mariners."

PLA expert Gary Li, the head of marine and aviation forecasting at the London-based private intelligence firm Exclusive Analysis, said the exercise carried symbolic rather than hard military significance. "In military terms, we are talking pretty small beer. … But the fact is that they have not done anything like this before, and it will help to boost trust and confidence on all sides," he said.

The historic decision of the PLA Navy to join an international armada fighting piracy off Somalia raised international hopes of increased co-operation when it started four years ago.

It marked China's first foray in centuries into potential conflict beyond its home waters. But while its regular shipping convoys to guide vessels from greater China and beyond have required PLA naval officials to liaise more closely with US, Nato and other forces operating off the Horn of Africa, the Pentagon has struggled to win approval from Beijing to stage such a drill as Monday's.

An independent survey of Sino-US military figures prepared in June for the US Congress noted: "Even on relatively innocuous and co-operative efforts such as parallel anti-piracy operations … the PLA has not described them as useful for … engagement or co-operation with the US military." This was "at odds with US goals and views".

Planned exercises were then thwarted by tensions relating to a new package of arms sales to Taiwan in September last year.

Yesterday's Fifth Fleet statement, however, noted that both sides discussed the operation "to learn how to better operate in the future".