By Phil Stewart, Reuters
WASHINGTON–China’s People’s Liberation Army has accepted an invitation to participate for the first time in a major U.S.-hosted naval drill, but legal restrictions will limit its role to less sensitive exercises, like disaster relief, U.S. officials say. Beijing’s agreement to join the drills being held next year comes at a moment of heightened tensions between China and U.S. ally Japan over disputed East China Sea islets, and unease in the United States about China’s rapid military buildup and its cyber capabilities. The Rim of the Pacific exercise, known as RIMPAC, is billed as the world’s largest international maritime exercise, with 22 nations and more than 40 ships and submarines participating the last time it was held off Hawaii in 2012. Not all the participants are treaty allies with the United States. Last year’s participants included Russia and India.
But China has never participated in the event, although it did send observers to RIMPAC in 1998, the Pentagon said.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter acknowledged China had agreed to participate in RIMPAC during a little-noticed speech on Wednesday in Jakarta. Carter said he was “delighted that they have accepted” the American invitation, extended last year by then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. At the time, Panetta said he asked China to send a ship to the exercises. Beijing said later it would give the offer “positive consideration.”