China is participating in joint military exercises with the U.S. and Australia for the first time, even as it continues to raise tensions in the region by asserting its disputed claims to much of the South China Sea.
Five soldiers from the U.S. Marine Corps, 10 from China’s People’s Liberation Army and 10 from the Australian Army are taking part in the survival training exercise known as KOWARI 14, according to a statement from Australia’s Department of Defence. The exercise concludes on Oct. 25.
“Exercise KOWARI 14 will provide participants with an understanding of the basic principles, procedures, techniques and equipment that can enhance survival prospects in the harsh Australian environment,” said Australian Defense Minister David Johnston. “The exercise demonstrates the willingness of Australia, China and the United States to work together in practical ways.”
China’s push to assert its claims in the East and South China seas has led to confrontations with the Philippines and Vietnam and comes as U.S. President Barack Obama expands the U.S. military’s presence in the region as part of his so-called rebalance to Asia. The U.S has strengthened its six-decade alliance with Australia, intending to double its 1,200 elite soldiers there by 2020, boost live-fire exercises and increase navy visits.
Australia is building military links with the U.S. while seeking to maintain economic ties with China, its biggest trading partner. Relations with China were strained after Australia Foreign Minister Julie Bishop criticized the Chinese government for proclaiming an air defense identification zone in November in the East China Sea.
In August, the U.S. formally protested what it called a provocation by a Chinese fighter jet that buzzed within 20 feet of a Navy surveillance aircraft about 135 miles (217 kilometers) east of Hainan Island, the southernmost tip of China. China has disputed the U.S.’s claims, saying its fighter pilot carried out a routine identification of two U.S. planes and kept a safe distance.
The drills that began today include field training and survival tests in remote inland and coastal areas, according to Australia’s Department of Defence.
“The exercise will provide some extremely challenging situations for the participants to work through, in some of the toughest terrain that Australia has to offer,” said its commander Brigadier Peter Clay. “The troops will have to depend on each other absolutely in order to succeed.”