Beijing to participate in US naval drills amid South China Sea tensions

© Edgar Su
China is sending a flotilla of five vessels, including two warships and a hospital ship, to the US-hosted naval drills in the Pacific. The decision comes despite persistent tensions between Washington and Beijing over the South China Sea islands.

The Chinese Defense Ministry announced late Thursday that it would send the flotilla to the Rim of the Pacific exercises, also known as RIMPAC. Beijing said the flotilla would participate in live fire, anti-piracy, search and rescue, and other drills, Reuters reported.

The announcement comes despite critics of the Obama administration – including Senator John McCain – urging Washington to ban China from the drills in a show of disapproval of Beijing's military actions.

The US has expressed repeated concern over China's behavior in the South China Sea, where it has laid claim to almost the entire region, despite conflicting partial claims from Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines.

Beijing has reportedly built military installations, including runways and missile launchers, on reclaimed islands in the South China Sea, prompting international concern.

Last week, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter ruffled Beijing's feathers by stating that “China's actions could erect a Great Wall of self-isolation.” That comment spurred a response from China, with Beijing accusing Carter of having a Cold War mentality.

“China has no interest in any form of Cold War, nor are we interested in playing a role in a Hollywood movie written and directed by certain US military officials. However, China has no fear of and will counter any actions that threaten and undermine China's sovereignty and security," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Monday.

Hua went on to state that Carter's remarks were aimed at providing cover for Washington's plans to deploy additional military forces to the region.

Tensions between the two countries were also worsened one week earlier, when the US lifted an arms embargo on Vietnam – a move which the state-run China Daily said was aimed at “curbing the rise of China.”

US President Barack Obama said the lifting of the embargo was not about China, though he did mention the concern shared by Washington and Hanoi regarding Beijing's presence in the South China Sea.

Beijing has repeatedly warned Washington against interfering in the region. However, the US has conducted several warship excursions into the South China Sea and has flown numerous surveillance missions over the area. Washington has also vowed to ignore Beijing's Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) when conducting military missions in the region.

Held every two years in Hawaii in June and July, RIMPAC is the world's largest international maritime exercise. China also took part in the drills in 2014, though US defense officials said its participation at that time was limited to areas such as humanitarian relief and search and rescue operations.