BEIJING — Chinese ships steamed Tuesday toward waters near Hawaii to participate for the first time in the world's largest naval exercises hosted by Washington — a rare opportunity to build trust with the U.S. and regional rivals including the Philippines and Japan.
China's participation in the Rim of the Pacific exercises beginning June 26 will enable Chinese naval officers to rub shoulders with U.S. counterparts as well as those from countries with which it has maritime disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea.
Washington and Beijing have been seeking closer military ties following an incident last December when a U.S. Navy cruiser, the USS Cowpens, nearly collided with a ship accompanying China's sole aircraft carrier in the South China Sea — the most serious sea confrontation between the two nations in years.
China's agreeing to participate shows a new maturity in its foreign relations whereby it won't allow individual disagreements to upset overall ties, said Ni Lexiong, a military expert at Shanghai's University of Political Science and Law.
"The rule of the game now is that we can argue, we can quarrel, but at the same time, we can work together. And everybody has shown respect for that rule," Ni said.
Twenty-three countries will participate in this year's drills, including Australia, Canada, France, India, Indonesia, South Korea and Britain.
China's Defense Ministry said four ships — the destroyer Haikou, missile frigate Yueyang, the oiler Yueyang, and hospital ship Peace Ark — departed Monday. It said the squadron is carrying 1,100 officers and sailors, including a commando unit and diving team, along with two helicopters.
The statement quoted navy Deputy Chief of Staff Hong Xumeng as saying China's participation in the drills constituted "an important mission of military diplomacy" and a further step in strengthening China-U.S. relations.