China to take part in Australian naval war games despite tensions between two sides

China accepts offer to join 26 other countries in exercise off Australian north coast despite recent strains in relations between Canberra and Beijing

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 August, 2018, 12:39pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 August, 2018, 10:25pm

China’s navy will join 26 other nations in military exercises off Australia’s north coast this month, but not live-fire drills, Australia’s defence minister said on Wednesday 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 United States, which expelled China in May from its military training around Hawaii – a response to what it sees as Beijing’s militarisation of islands in the South China Sea.

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

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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.

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

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

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

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The drills will be held 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 United States. They run to mid September and involve 27 nations.

China was involved in the drills as an observer in 2016. Only Britain declined an invitation to participate this time, a spokesman for Australia’s defence minister said in an email.

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 a sign that senior Chinese officials are happier,” said Andre Carr, senior lecturer in the strategic and defence studies centre at the Australian National University.